Building a Book: How Not Neutral Came to Life

Just like our work in architecture, landscape, and design, our effort to tell our own story proved to be an intensively collaborative process, one that involved every member of our firm. The result is Not Neutral: For Every Place, Its Story, a comprehensive look at everything our firm has accomplished in its first 30 years.

Like the firm itself, the book began with a vision from founding partner Mark Rios that paired projects with big ideas. Our very first meeting to discuss the book was in February 2015. We discussed Mark’s vision, potential release dates, the size of the book, and tone of the essays. Looking back at the notes I took during our first few meetings I see that most of what we discussed was actually implemented: “Have 13-14 chapters.” “Do not make this just a monograph.” “Include personal essays written by a diverse group of staff members.” “Create collages that illustrate rigor.” And “Include a list of everyone who has ever worked for our office.”

We also talked for some time about who our publisher would be. We needed someone who had wide distribution, a respected reputation, and most importantly, would let us design the entire book ourselves. We also knew we wanted a big book, one that would have a certain kind of spectacular gravitas. American Modern, or AMMO, satisfied all our criteria, and with their ability to print 600+ page books at 16 x 12 inches, we were dazzled. We signed up with Steve Crist, AMMO’s founder.

As we so often do when brainstorming the look of a new house or campus landscape, we filled the walls of our hallway with images from our previous work. Pinning up literally hundreds of images gave us our first chance to see how each chapter might look. Using the giant canvas of our hallway allowed us to move images from one chapter to another, adding here and subtracting there until the balance was just right. It also showed us what was missing from our archives—but not our memories—setting us off on in search of remembered drawings, sketches, and photos from decades-old projects.

This part of the process turned into a treasure hunt, as we dug through flat files, hoping to unearth drawings on old papers that first articulated the design idea, that Eureka moment when we knew what a particular project’s story would become. We tracked down photographers who shot projects during the last millennium, digitized old negatives, and in some cases even scheduled new photo shoots.

Once we had a general consensus about which projects belonged in each category, the partners met with our marketing team and our graphic design director to decide how to organize the projects within each chapter. We looked at two and three chapters at a time to see how images flowed from one chapter to the next. As we started to fill the pages, the themes and design concepts began to morph into chapter titles like “Kit of Parts” and “Both/And” (a favorite of many contributors).  

Then it was time to think about the text. From the book’s inception, the partners hoped to include essays from as many office leaders as possible. Every senior associate was encouraged to contribute an essay, which could be about anything they wanted, so long as it fit within the theme of a particular chapter. The resulting essays are varied, intensely thoughtful, and at times very personal. Carolyn Sumida’s essay, “Sweet Dreams,” outlines her design process vis a vis her dream sequence, and Elisa Read’s essay, “Verde Que te Quiero Verde,” is written in her native tongue.

We also started the long process of writing captions to accompany the book’s 1,500 photographs, renderings, diagrams, and sketches. We recorded conversations among the partners as they reviewed a lifetime’s worth of work, then transcribed those conversations and augmented them with our archived content. Some captions ended up as abridged versions of the original descriptions we wrote so many years ago when the projects were first completed. Others reflected the perspective of a partner looking back on work a generation later.

To complete the text, we invited Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture radio program, to write a guest essay. And we asked David Bohnett, a longtime friend and repeat client, to write the introduction.

Even after settling on a final draft of 612 pages, we continued to tinker around the margins. We edited captions for style and consistency, re-wrote and changed the locations of essays, altered images, checked and re-checked the colors, and added lists of past staff members and award-winning projects. We designed the cover, the end papers, and the box needed to encase our substantial tome. We sent the first files to the publisher in June 2016 and the first printed proof came back in October 2016. Many final adjustments were made, and then subsequent final final and then final final final changes were confirmed. February 2017 marked the arrival of our first hard copy, and our first shipment of 76 books arrived March 2017, with the remainder arriving in port April 2017.

Now that the book is fully realized and beginning to find its way into our community and the world beyond, it is easy to think back and wonder how two years went by so fast. Revisiting memories and gathering the artifacts of our design process was both inspiring and reflective. For me, the essays written by our staff are particularly touching. Their words are so thoughtful and personal, and provide glimpses into the hard-working group that we have at Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

I’m also left thinking…what’s next?


Buy your copy here.