Inside the Designer’s Mind: Marianne Cusato

Marianne Cusato’s design philosophy has created common sense solutions for FEMA trailers, McMansions, subdivisions and cities. She’s often featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and has even made the evening news.  While all of these interviews capture her efforts to improve our built environment, none really go inside the mind behind the work. Here’s a “Beyond the Bio” look Inside the Mind of Marianne Cusato:

She’s fascinated with toys. Especially toys you have to figure out.  I’ve never been able to complete a Rubik’s cube. Marianne can whip one into perfection before I can decide which color to start with. She’s determined, yet patient. Once, with a long flight ahead of us, she gave me my own cube and offered to teach me.  I lost interest before take-off – which is probably the problem. One day, when she’s not designing buildings, she’ll design toys for really smart girls and boys.

She’s loyal yet open. Given her choice of any restaurant in Los Angeles, she chooses a childhood favorite – Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Yet, after reluctantly trying my favorite vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco (Millenium), she asked to go back the next time we were there. Progress…

She operates efficiently in chaos. Her workspace is her dining room table surrounded by piles of books on design, cities, color, architecture and philosophy.  Last time I visited Marianne, I noticed a few additions to the pile  – cookbooks and healthy books.

She’s particular yet playful. While she was reading Dr. Oz, she was baking cookies. Of course, she didn’t choose just any cookie.  This cookie required an architectural diagram to assemble. (Check out the checkerboard cookie assembly chart from  Like all good designs, they were worth the effort… they tasted great.

And, isn’t it interesting…the resemblance between Checkerboard cookies and the Rubik’s Cube?

ITE:  Did you always want to be a designer?
MC:  Yes, since I was in elementary school.

ITE:  Do you sketch regularly?
MC: No, I used to draw and sketch more in my free time. That was when I had free time.

ITE: Do you prefer a specific journal/sketchbook?
MC:  I don’t keep a sketch book. I keep buying them, but I can never remember to bring one with me when I’m out and about.

ITE:  How do you prepare for creativity? What inspires you?
MC:  I make sure I have all of my essential supplies around me – a pile of sharp pencils (I like at least 3, real wood, with erasers that work), my phone so I don’t have to move if I get a call, a glass of water and a box of Kleenex because I have awful allergies and nothing is worse for the creative process than a sniffling nose.

ITE:  What is the biggest opportunity for architects today?
MC: Working at Starbucks, sorry, just kidding. I would say being creative and making their own opportunities. Do the project that you always dreamed of, then find a client for it – it is much more rewarding than being a slave to projects you are only doing because the fee is good.

ITE:  What is the biggest misconception about architects?
MC:  That they are all unemployed. There are a lot of firms that are hanging tough now even though times are rough.

ITE: If you could help people appreciate the beauty in something in our built environment / outdoor room, what would you make them notice?
MC: Look at how people actually use and engage in a place. Where do they sit? Where do they stand? How do they come and go?

For a proper bio and more about Marianne’s books, home plans and media coverage, visit

Inside the Designer’s Mind: Roel Krabbendam, Architect


I believe in divine intervention. And, on a rainy December day at a Starbucks in Tucson, Arizona, it came to me in the form of Roel Krabbendam.  I was still formulating ideas for Inside The Exterior when I noticed the man at the table next to me was sketching in a Moleskine. I just happened to be writing an article about architects sketching ideas in Moleskinesand I just had a feeling he was an architect. So, I asked him. And, he was.

I tried to explain the premise of Inside The Exterior. He patiently listened to me babble about 500 Days of Summer, possibility, encouraging the designer within, architects as heroes… I wasn’t sure how I’d use it, but I knew I needed a picture of the both of us with our Moleskines.  Later, I emailed Roel the following list of questions … If you haven’t been a believer in divine intervention, maybe you’ll at least have more belief in instinct because I couldn’t have found a more perfect introduction of someone “seeing the world through that architect’s eye” than Roel.


Roel Krabbendam finds creative inspiration on a bicycle.  He spent three monthscrossing the Sahara with his bicycle in 2006. He decided to become an architect while riding his bike around Europe and Africa in 1978-79.   He lives with bare studs and half-tiled floors in a house that’s always under construction and obsesses about design and the environment.

ITE: Do you sketch regularly?

ROEL:  I doodle a lot to organize an environment, and when I’ve got the essential organization for a building but haven’t found its expression.  I also do a lot of overlays, working with real dimensions so I don’t waste effort fooling myself. 

In some respects, I feel more like an analyst than an artist.

Fundamentally, I’m even more obsessed with the experience of a building than I am with the appearance of a building: how does it feel, what’s the light like, can I sharpen the contrasts to emphasize the qualities of a material or experience…

ITE:   Have you always used Moleskines?

ROEL:  My partner turned me on to moleskins a few years ago.  I do have an awful lot of them lining the studio along with stacks and stacks of old trace in the flat files.

It’s a sentimental act, saving this stuff: you put so much emotion and effort into this work that it’s hard to part with.

ITE: How do you prepare for creativity ?

ROEL: I’m somewhat adrift without a problem to chew on, and that is my primary impetus.  My juices start flowing when someone asks for help. Need inspires me.  Place inspires me.

*  Flying to Hawaii over a slate-gray Pacific, and smelling Kona as I got off the plane, and cutting through the elephant grass of the site, and seeing and feeling the sunlight and the shadows: that’s what inspired Hula Dog Ranch.

* For a Waldorf School in the Sonoran Desert, it’s a sandy wash, the blue lace shadows under a palo verde tree, the heat radiating from an earthen wall that I think about.

* For a college building in Willcox, Arizona it was the experience of walking through nearby Kartchner Caverns that led to a design.

* In the Amazon, sun and water were my chief interests.  Light and water are always interesting and inspiring to me, and unique to every environment.

ITE: Biggest opportunity for architects today?

ROEL:  I doubt there’s a formula, but at RED we’ve found opportunities most successfully by giving instead of asking: offering insights, offering ideas, offering time to different organizations, and becoming involved with them far more deeply than as a hired thinktank.

* Our work for Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example, came out ofadopting a little sister.

* Our work for the Hearth Foundation came out of a volunteer effort to help homeless women with children.

* Our educational work comes from lots of experience but also the passion we demonstrate by thinking through a potential client’s concerns and offering something inspirational.

ITE: Biggest misconception about architects? ROEL: Lots of interesting media portrayals…your question suggests there are conceptions that do fit, but I don’t buy it.  Architects run the gamut from practical to idealistic, self-effacing to egocentric, methodical to improvisational.

ITE:  If you could help people appreciate the beauty in something in our built environment / outdoor room, what would you make them notice?

ROEL:  It’s a cliché in the profession, but I do always look to the light in a space: how it enters, how it reflects, what it illuminates, how it feels.

ITE: How long have you been an architect?

ROEL:  I decided to become an architect while riding my bicycle around Europe and Africa in 1978-9.  I had just turned 20. I started studying architecture part-time at Cornell University in 1979, finally got a degree in 1991 from Southern California Institute of Architecture, and finally got my first license in California around 1995 and then became licensed in Massachusetts and Arizona.

ITE:  What type of design do you specialize in?

ROEL:  At RED we work a lot with non-profit groups, helping our clients raise funds as well as designing their environments.  I have done even more work in the educational field, for both public and private school clients.  My partner and I have also done a lot of major institutional interiors as consultants to other architects: The Skirball Center in Los Angeles, the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, MA, various courthouses as well. Finally, our work for Hula Dog Ranch in Kona Hawaii recently got published in The Hawaiian House Now…so we do residential work as well.

Page 2 of 212
© Copyright Denese Russell: Writings | created by: IZUMI STUDIOS