Upon first glance of any Karen Otis-designed home or other space, it is immediately clear that you are about to encounter something memorable – a feast for the senses, if you will. In fact, no matter what one’s personal style, preferences, or tastes happen to be, it’s likely that anyone would be awed, and perhaps even moved by the experience.
Much of this reaction stems from the truly interesting and rarely seen touches Otis manages to infuse into each of her creations.
“I attempt to redefine the most mundane spaces or objects,” Otis continues. “We become so accustomed to objects in our everyday world that we no longer see them. We walk through a door or gate and hardly take notice. I try to draw our eyes and our senses back to it, whether by giving it a new form or material, to see it renewed.”
Otis’s goal with this approach, she says, “is to create spaces that engage the viewer or visitor – to enhance and deepen their experience. That experience,” she adds, “is as important as the aesthetic result – how a handrail feels to the touch, how it is shaped for the human hand, how a view if framed for a person’s height, how the home or space reveals itself to us as we walk through it.”
For Otis, every project consists of several components – from a client’s lifestyle and the site up on which she’s working, to considerations of the way in which the client intends to use the space.
Says Otis, “I feel that I, as the architect, give the project its spirit or its spark, but it is then that spark that generates the project’s design. I then emphasize, strengthen, and enhance it. The same idea reveals itself throughout the project – in the detail in the powder room, in the way the floor plan unfolds, in the unexpected curve of a staircase.”
The end result is a strength and unity in design that is evident in each instance of Otis’s work.
The appeal of architecture for Otis was that it affords her the opportunity to indulge in both the creative and practical, or as she explains it, “I love the artistic quality of architecture, but also that it is so grounded in reality.”
Even throughout the four years Otis was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, she interned at various architectural firms.
“It was evident to me then, before I had any real training, that there was no real design intent to many of the projects, whether they were commercial or residential,” says Otis. “There was no common thread through the whole project, and that was my biggest struggle.”
Otis’s struggle continued during her tenure at the prestigious Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), where she earned her master’s degree.
“The buildings, structures, and homes that we were creating at the firms at which I worked seemed completely different from the strong philosophical work I was learning and doing at SCI-ARC,” says Otis. “Like many of my fellow classmates, I could not figure out how, after school, I was going to be able to do that kind of strong work in the real world.”
Fortunately, Otis sought other modes of inspiration – and found it in her travels – which took her, primarily, to Europe. With examples of what she calls “true architecture” all around her, Otis became even more interested in the creative process itself – a process that has since fueled each and every one of her projects.
After working at various firms, Otis also took advantage of the slow real estate market in the 1990’s and dropped in on open house showings to let the realtors know about her work. Soon, their clients were calling too, and before she knew it, Otis found herself in business.
Her projects themselves, of course, were Otis’s strongest selling point. Each one, though entirely individual, bears a distinctive Otis sensibility.
Although she prefers not to state an overriding design style, it is clear that Otis’s designs tend toward the contemporary. It is here, within this loose framework, that her designs can and do take flight.
“I strive to blur the predefined edges between inside and outside,” comments Otis. “By firmly defining these boundaries, we tend to feel confined and out of touch with the natural environment. I attempt to lessen that distinction, to blend the organic and inorganic, the interior and exterior, the manmade and natural. This reconnects us to the natural and spiritual world, thus elevating our human experience.”
Otis’s designs are quite obviously imbued with something far beyond common architecture. There is an integrity of purpose to them, a subtle aesthetic philosophy made tangible – an indescribable style that defies categorization.
In one home, for example, Otis has woven a tapestry of quartzite throughout – on the walkway that extends into the home, on the façade of the top roof piece, in a Japanese garden, and then inside, behind the walls at different niches on the vertical surfaces of the home. In the same home, many of the components are separated. The sink stands as a separate sculptural piece, the staircase dissolves as tread is separated from riser, and handrail hovers above. In a very real sense, the details Otis weaves throughout her works seem to serve to slow time, as the eye takes in nuances and subtleties in a way it has rarely experienced.
Otis cites Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn among her influences, but insists her designs are guided much more by the relationship that occurs with her clients.
“Regardless of how strong an idea is, it is always important to me to remember that I am not creating a piece for my portfolio; I am creating my client’s dream home. I believe that the space should give depth, beauty, and meaning to the most simple, most mundane tasks. If it doesn’t, then it is just a piece of construction that is going to be out of style in a year and has no depth or meaning to it.”
Otis’s commitment to her work has also led her to spend some of her valuable time teaching architecture workshops for school children.
“Here, in the U.S., we don’t study architecture unless we plan to become an architect,” she says. “That is not the case in Europe. Everybody learns it to a certain extent because the culture values the artistic endeavor behind it. So, in my children’s workshops, I try to help them rethink some of the most basic things in their lives. We will look at doors, and then they will design a door, but so that it doesn’t have to be what we have always seen it to be. We will talk about the idea that homes can be built from different materials – such as wood, bricks, or that you can actually make your building materials, which we then do.”
Otis comments that today’s children will be “the clients of the future,” and as such, is committed to helping them view the world “in broader terms.” It all goes back to her personal belief that architecture, like other artistic endeavors, should contribute to and deepen the human experience. In fact, Otis is driven by her belief that architecture should help celebrate the idea that there is a higher purpose in life.
“For me, architecture goes beyond each individual project,” says Otis. “It is a lifelong kind of study, an exploration of the whole notion of architecture, and one that I enjoy tremendously. If I, in my small way, through my work, can help enrich people’s day-to-day experience here, and perhaps bring more beauty into their lives, then I will have created architecture with true meaning and timeless spirit.