Novelty, Inclusivity & Urban Design: Interview with Mark Rios & Julie Smith-Clementi of RCH Studios
“We really believe, fundamentally, that design is better when you think inclusively about ways to solve a problem.” – Mark Rios
“Once you start with a broader vision of the world, then you can add in the missing pieces.” – Julie Smith-Clementi
When RCH Studios first began operations in 1985, the company was already stepping out of the mold by fusing traditional and landscape architecture; a rare and unconventional move at the time. Today the five-partner, multi-disciplinary design firm also offers branding, graphic, interior, urban, and environmental design services. Novelty, it seems, is the key to the company’s growing success, and that is exactly what Mark Rios, its founder, aimed for from the very beginning.
Currently, the world-class design firm is run by Frank Clementi, Bob Hale and Mark Motonaga, as well as Mark Rios and Julie Smith-Clementi who spoke to ARTpublika Magazine about RCH Studios, its work, and the core philosophies that drive it.
Please introduce yourselves.
Julie: My name is Julie Smith-Clementi and I am an architect. I’ve been working with Mark for 27 years and am currently running our products division line called notNeutral.
Mark: I am an architect and landscape architect. My strength and weakness is the same: I am very curious and I like to try new things, which has led us into a very diverse practice.
How did the company get started?
Julie: When Mark and his initial partner, Charles, started the company, it was equally landscape and architecture [oriented], which was extremely rare at the time. But holistic thinking about design is what, I think, gave us the basis to add these other disciplines as we’ve grown. When I came in, I was employee number four. At this point we have five partners. We’ve seen a huge amount of growth over that period.
RCH Studios just moved into a new office. How did you design it?
Mark: Our office space allows people to change their arrangement, because it’s not a fixed design. They’re not in these established relationships and hierarchies. When they have a new project, they can very easily change how they’re going to work on that project. So, keeping flexible was an important goal. The other thing that I think is really important for designers is that the office is an unfinished, messy place, like a workshop or a laboratory. Of course, we want to be gracious to the people who come and visit us, but it’s not meant to be a showplace or a museum. This is place where you work: you have ideas, you experiment, and you test things. So it’s messy and complicated and a good thing.
Julie: I think one of the biggest parts of moving into this space is that we were in a very dense urban environment – we were on two floors. Now, we are in a warehouse, all on one floor. We are trying to keep the desks in one area, so that we can use the space to mark things on the floor, to get an idea of scale, as well as make full size markups and pin stuff on walls. This gives us a chance to create with a better understanding of things than we previously had.
RCH Studios was selected to work on the Los Angeles River-adjacent Lincoln Heights Jail, what is the objective?
Julie: It’s a historic monument that is just sitting on city property. Our task is to make that into something new. In this case, Lincoln Properties came to the table with an adjacent property to really make this a very unique proposition. So, the refurbishment of the jail and the park around as well as some office and residential buildings adjacent to them will be considered as part of the entire process.
Mark: We design everything from parks to plates. It’s the [signature] diversity of the practice. We’re interested in not doing the same thing too many times. And once we’ve done something a few times, we try to find other ways of looking at the same problem. We are not known for a building type, we are known for a lack of one.
Do you have any favorite projects?
Julie: We have a lot of public and cultural projects. We’ve been working on the Hollywood Bowl, a theater that’s been around since the 1930s and seats over 17000 people. There is food service and places for artists to practice as well as a ton of parking, picnicking areas, and bathrooms. To get 17000 people in and out of a site in the middle of Los Angeles is a challenge. But we’ve been working during almost every off-season. We started with some historic pieces and renovated them. Then we did the bathrooms, lighting all over the entire site, their picnicking areas and all the furniture. Most recently, we did a whole new gateway entrance building that has a market, a store, and a box-office. It’s complex to build stuff in the off-season because the show must go on. But, that’s an example of a lot of different building types on one property for one client. I love that it’s all for the betterment of the patron experience. Every season it’s getting better.
How do you make sure to preserve historic elements during the restoration effort, while building and adding new stuff?
Julie: When we came to this site, the LA Parks and Recreation Department had the entire property surveyed and put together design guidelines, so there’s a really great road map to what they want to develop in the future in terms of respecting the historical pieces. When new pieces are being done, there are design elements that should be conveyed. So, we’ve been working within those design guidelines.
What kinds of people do you hire to complete projects like this?
Julie: In the case of this client we’ve had architects, interior designers, signage people, lighting consultants, and landscape architects. Any one of these projects will involve at least two to three of them. Having a broad practice like ours allows us to pull people that are necessary on each one of the projects, because they are distinctly different.
Mark: For us, it’s really about thinking of the best way to solve a problem. And I think we come up with more original concepts by having different kinds of people sitting around the table. It’s about making better work. But, the project we get most recognition for at the moment is Grand Park. That was a 12 year project in the office – five years before we started building or doing anything, and it was a piece of land owned by both the city of Los Angeles and the county of Los Angeles, so it was a joint venture. It was an extremely complicated client base, because there were probably a dozen different clients that include public interest groups, historians, etc.
What is the brainstorming process like once you have a commission?
Julie: With all these different projects with different scales, I don’t think we have one way of doing things. We are trying to define what our process is, or what makes us able to look at things in a broad-based way. We look at the history of the site and the area; we look at the cultural demographics of a place and try to make something specific and unique to it.
Mark: The other thing is being empathetic. Once we’ve done all this research to empathize with the clients or the users or neighbors, we try to understand what diverse goals and emotions are going on. How to be empathetic about the project is really important. It prevents the ego from taking charge.
Julie: Once you have some initial insight or research you start to think about the design. We always try to have a couple of different options before we decide on one. Even when we say this is going to go in this direction, we are always reviewing it and testing it and coming back to it, we’re not afraid to change it if that’s appropriate.
Mark: And critique. That’s the creative process, these cycles.
What is the difference between designers and developers and who is in charge of what?
Mark: Designers are thinking about what something may be like: how it will look, the form and layout it will have, how many floors and rooms it will feature. They are responsible for making it happen. Developers are kind of like movie producers; they are coordinating all of the people, hiring the design team and contractors.
Let’s take parks as an example. What if a park needs a fountain? Who is responsible for the underground infrastructure that will make the fountain work?
Julie: That probably falls more into our camp. Once we decide with the developers that they want the fountain, we will work with specialists who know how to design them. There would be a whole concept about the fountain: the goal, how often it will be used, how the public will interact with it. Then the specialists would actually design it and make drawing about how to make it for the consultant and the contractor. Developers are involved in the conceptual aspect of it and the financing aspect of it, but our team would actually construct it.
Mark: When taking on any new project, we have to think about the goals: Do the goals of the clients and the goals of the developers align with our goals? Some developers want to make a really big impact on urban living. Other developers could be purely about the bottom line and getting money back to their shareholders, which are their goals. Same with the city. Some city projects are done to pacify a neighborhood, and other city projects could be done to integrate a neighborhood. So we always look for partners who have common goals.
If a playground is needed inside a park, are you responsible for it? Or do you carve out the space and then another company or agency takes care of it?
Mark: It can work either way. We may get a child development consultant to come and help us hone down on the exact demographics of the kids that will be coming to this particular place, because we would need to make it relate to different ages and skill levels. A lot of analysis and rigorous research goes into it.
Julie: A lot of what we did at Grand Park was zone out future possibilities, and one that came back at us relatively quickly was a space for children to play in. So, for us it was not just some corner. We had to think about how this space would relate to the rest of the park, and what the experience of going to that park would be like. So, it’s really great when we can think about these things on all types of levels. But we’ve done a lot of park/play spaces all over the city, and in a lot of those cases it’s not as integrated as this particular example.
How do you stay environmentally friendly?
Julie: If your values align with trying to do the best thing possible at all times, then incorporating that into your design process is very easy. In terms of where we site buildings, we think about where the sun is, how they’ll deal with wind, how much ground they’ll take up, their association with nature. There’s a whole aspect of where you source things from, and what is the supply chain to make something. These are all things that lead to environmentally sensitive and appropriate answers to problems. It’s not something we add on top; it’s part of our values and we bring that to any project we are working on.
What do you wish people knew about your work?
Mark: I don’t think people outside of the design world understand how much we worry about the impact of our work. If I designed you a set of dishes, you may think it’s beautiful and they have a lot of white and blue. But my intent behind that may be all about combining eastern and western dish making traditions, so that it’s inclusive. We worry about content and context a lot.
Is there a project you’d like to work on that you haven’t yet?
Mark: Something in space. I would love to design some very small, sustainable place where you can work and live and grow and exercise. And if we did it, maybe we could use it on earth. I want to do new things by asking big questions.
Note* All images are provided by and are the creative property of RCH Studios.