It’s hard to overstate Michael Hsu Office of Architecture’s impact on Austin. Since 2005—and before that, if you count the designer’s tenure at Dick Clark and Associates—Hsu and company have been defining and redefining how the city functions and how it looks with a staggeringly large number and variety of significant building and interior projects, most of them small-scale, neighborhood-focused, and stylistically distinctive. Whether game-changing developments (Lamar Union, Fareground, Saltillo), innovative spaces for budget-minded creatives (Canopy, Springdale General), or high-flying hospitality projects (the Line makeover, South Congress Hotel), Hsu’s projects tend to be about gathering and community—activities and values that are deeply woven into Austin’s concept of itself.
So what happens when an architect whose work is so imbued with those concepts must, like most of Austin, work in relative isolation due to the city’s stay-home order, issued in March due to the coronavirus pandemic?
It should be of little surprise that Hsu responded with typical aesthetic deftness, creating a home work space that functions equally well as a video-conference studio and an a representation of his finely honed design sensibilities. “Usually when I work at home, it’s on the couch or the bed, and I have a small desk,” Hsu said in a recent phone call. When the need for a full-on, all-day work space arose, however, “I ended up not using any of those spaces,” he said. “I ended up using my dining room table.” Hsu changed the orientation of the table so that the background looks different—and well-designed—from either side. He also bought a Loom Cube to control and enhance the lighting, which in a home space can change radically throughout the day. It doesn’t hurt that he has an unfussy, gorgeous dining room setup already, one that includes Patricia Urquioala chairs that happen to lend themselves to work without being task chairs.
While Hsu has designed numerous work spaces, including the Austin firm’s creative offices not far from his Rosedale residence, he finds different inspirations—and challenges—at home, especially with his children (ages 11 and 14) in the house right now. “Noise is a challenge, lighting is a constant challenge,” he says. “It was interesting that I didn’t end up in the other areas I usually work in at night. It ended up being about the lighting and convenience of being close to the kitchen so I can get coffee or take a break.”
Hsu has found some unexpected ways that working in his home allows for a different experience, such as proximity to his records and stereo. “Music has been a huge thing,” he said. “In my office, I don’t always get to choose the music. It elevates my mood and ups my productivity. I’m an introvert, and our office is a big, open space. I find it’s easier to concentrate at home.”
Indoor plants—he’s particularly enjoying his spear-leaf ficus and eight-foot-tall pencil cactus at the moment—as well as candles and nonfiction books he can pick up to take a brief break or while waiting for a meeting to start also enhance his home office experience (the Tartine Bread book and Beastie Boys autobiography are currently at hand).
“The other thing that’s really fantastic is to be able sit at home and open your windows,” he said, pointing to some more Austin-specific aspects of working at home that people can take advantage of right now. “My existing area of Austin feels so much like a small town,” he adds. “Areas around my home that I can bike or walk to are my world again.”
As someone whose profession already dictates giving an enormous amount of attention to spaces public, private, and in-between, Hsu said, “I fit this sort of voyeuristic notion of seeing into people homes interesting. I’m curious to see how people think about their home places—do they want to invest more time and money in it, do they want to turn their lawns into gardens, into places you spend more time?”
“As architects, we work on all kinds of projects,” he added. “It’s so interesting to see how our world has shrunk to our homes. It’s a resting point.”