Lifelong process : When it comes to design, Cecilia Nichols started early

Nichols' firm's past projects include photographer Will Kerner's home in Woolen Mills, and the offices of Silverchair and Red Light Management (below), which incorporates a scrim with artwork by local botanical artist Laura Call Gastinger. Photo: Scott Smith Nichols’ firm’s past projects include photographer Will Kerner’s home in Woolen Mills, and the offices of Silverchair and Red Light Management (below), which incorporates a scrim with artwork by local botanical artist Laura Call Gastinger. Photo: Scott Smith

We caught up with the co-founder of Formwork Architecture to see what she’s currently working on, why she loves practicing in Charlottesville, and how a line of Brazilian modernist furniture in her childhood home helped hone her aesthetic.

Why architecture?

It makes me very happy most of the time I am practicing it. I consider architecture to be all design questions related to the environment, from the smallest scales to the largest scales—the spoon to the city. So it would be impossible to get bored and there is always something new.

The practice also includes so many different things—meeting all kinds of different people, learning about all kinds of different places, materials, methods of making, and lives. It involves going to places and spending time there. It involves sitting and drawing and thinking. Finally, I love the pace. Projects start, finish, and end. Some are short and some are long.

Also, I am not qualified to do anything else.

Cecilia-Nichols_Cat Thrasher
Cecilia Nichols Photo: Cat Thrasher

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I fell into practice in Virginia. I came in 1999 to give a lecture at UVA. I stayed for several days as a guest critic in the landscape department. During that time, I met my now husband and partner, Robert Nichols. I came back to be close to him and to teach at UVA for a year (that turned into many years of teaching at UVA), and thought that we would move to Miami Beach where I had a practice with Rene Gonzalez.

I never imagined myself anywhere but in a large city. But I never left Charlottesville. I love it. It’s an amazing community. I never imagined I would know so many people in my community and that I would be so knitted in. How can it get any better than designing for so many people that you care about or get to care about and know through the process of designing for them?

Photo: Scott Smith

What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?

My parents are Cuban exiles. When I was little we lived in Brazil. There, my father worked for a furniture company called Oca. It made a lot of the Brazilian modernist furniture that is so famous now (represented by places such as R & Company in New York City, which is curated by Cate Andrews, a former Charlottesville resident). Our house was furnished almost exclusively with Sergio Rodrigues’ furniture and later, when we moved to the United States, my mother added some very special antiques. Almost all my detail concepts stem from what I learned living with this beautiful furniture. I try to channel Sergio all the time. To combine the modern and the sensual is the most special moment I look for.

My father became a developer and builder and I was around a lot of construction, many architects, and their drawings. I learned how to read architectural drawings at an early age. A usual weekend activity was to drive around and admire pieces of land. One day, my parents found a property with a farmer’s house on it, a pond out front. The land was a natural hammock (a native Florida ecosystem). They fell in love with it.

The house was very different from the suburban houses typical in South Florida. It extended itself into the hammock in every way. It had very tall ceilings and huge doors and windows. Because of the climate, we lived on long screened-in terraces that were all along both sides of the house from October to May. Huge sliding panels opened the indoors to the outdoors, until it got too hot to stay outside. I realized that this farmer who had designed the house for his beloved wife on his own, made his house to blend into its place and to optimize the good qualities of its environment while mitigating the tougher ones (mosquitoes and the heat!).

So knowing what an architect does, appreciating what designers do, and that the continuum from furniture to house to landscape is all part of this potentially uplifting human experience at the hands of a designer/person, I set out to study design.

Photo: Scott Smith

On process: How does it begin?

Process starts and ends with paying attention. Letting the place, the moment, the people tell you stuff. Lots of stuff. It’s really smart to notice the obvious stuff. Note it, articulate it. And letting that stuff start prioritizing itself for you as you sit back and think. I also let other things that happen to come along during the time I am thinking about a project, but that are seemingly wholly unrelated, come into play. No two projects go through the same Process (the one with the capital P). But they often go through the same process (the little p) or way to organize projects. That’s a lot lessinteresting to talk about, but we need the process too.

What’s in the studio at the moment?

We have a really fantastic mix of projects in the studio right now. We just finished a great collaboration with Will Richey on the new Alley Light on South First Street. That guy and Jose de Brito know so much about food. About wine! And Will is so laser-focused and yet so incredibly open to our design input. He put faith in our ideas and banged them out in a very short time.

Our project at Turkey Saddle, where we collaborated with Anna Boeschenstein, built by Ace Contracting, will be coming out in Dwell magazine’s April Indoor/Outdoor issue.

We are working for an incredible firm that is rehabilitating and renovating a wonderful set of buildings and courtyards in Downtown Charlottesville.

Several residential projects in Florida and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands are finishing up and starting up as well. And we are in various phases of design and construction on several incredibly special residential projects here in Charlottesville.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?

Since I arrived in 1999, I find an increasing interest in design. Firms such as Nelson Byrd Woltz and Gregg Bleam and all the incredible landscape architects in Charlottesville have led the charge and highlighted how special our place is. We have a big, robust, and talented architectural community in Charlottesville and in the last decade, the city has benefited from the inclusion of work by many modern architects too, which is, to me, a great sign that we are a community with faith in the future.