Gray Garmon, Assoc. AIA, is a visiting clinical professor of design and innovation in the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education at the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University. He is also a designer with Gary Garmon, Architect. Gray worked for architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron in Basel, Switzerland, and several firms in Texas. Recently, Gray and other local designers founded Design Future Dallas as an initiative to empower local creative efforts to improve the city through visionary design projects.
Where did you grow up?
Dallas, Texas…I grew up in Preston Hollow, went to DISD, played in punk bands in Deep Ellum, and ran cross country (very poorly) at Norbuck Park. But when I was 18, I wanted to live anywhere but Dallas. So I traveled regularly for years: architecture school at UT Austin, Peace Corps in Ghana, grad school in Philly, worked in Switzerland. But eventually, I got excited to come back to Dallas. It felt like the city had changed and I had, too. Having lived in so many different places, I realized my hometown was pulling me back, and I was excited to be a part of the creative community here.
Pen, pencil, or computer?
Pencil. To be specific: The Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2. This pencil is the greatest communication tool ever made. It’s a pleasure to use, and an outstanding piece of design. It holds a strong point, it erases easily (and comes with a good eraser…not like those garbage erasers that smudge the graphite, or rip off upon first use), it’s inexpensive, and it’s a great hue of yellow. I love the versatility and impermanence of pencil. I can draw fine lines or smudge dark shadows, and it’s easy to draw, redraw, and keep an idea loose. Pencil allows sketches to evolve and move. I appreciate the confidence of pens, and the power of the computer, but if I had to pick one visual communication tool: I’d go for the Dixon Ticonderoga every time.
Where do you find inspiration?
Travel. My learning/understanding has always been visual and tactile, so travel has a way of fundamentally reordering my outlook on the world. Travel allows me to see other ways of designing, how different people behave, what cultures consider sacred, and how that influences the built environment. There is no amount of writing or photos that can explain the feeling and sound of standing in a crowded St. Peters Cathedral on a warm day, or the awe-inspiring stonework of the Incas, or the simple joy of sitting with friends on wooden benches under a mango tree. Travel is 360-degree learning for me. As designers, we are required to produce so many ideas, drawings, presentations, and more. We can synthesize bits and pieces from art, history, engineering, and human factors into something new and (hopefully) desirable. But I’ve found I need to slow down every so often and recharge with new experiences that enhance my work and recharge my creativity.
Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?
All the time. Music is an important part of my design process. Pencil sharpened, software open, headphones on. The music depends on what I’m doing. Sometimes I want wordless, rhythmic beats to help me focus on solving a spatial problem, and other times I want music that inspires and puts me in a creative mood. Some current favorites are Father John Misty, Tinariwen, Run the Jewels, Andy Shauf, Chance the Rapper…I’m always looking for more great music. Like design, music is such a powerful tool to influence the way we think and behave. If music is really good, our bodies compel us to dance or (for our introverted friends) at least tap our toes! Sometimes, I wish I was a touring musician to experience the immediate audience feedback about creative decisions. Design has a much slower feedback loop.
What is the one building that you just had to see for yourself?
In architecture school, the buildings of Louis Sullivan and the bank in Owatonna just leapt out of the photographs, but I knew there was so much more to these buildings. In the summer of 2016, I decided to do a pilgrimage over thousands of miles to see all eight of Sullivan’s Jewel Box Banks throughout the Midwest. The Farmer’s National Bank in Owatonna, Minn., is one of the greatest pieces of American architecture. The massive brick structure roots it to the earth, but it is only one enormous room. One Room. And every square inch is designed. It’s a functioning Wells Fargo Bank, so you can sit in the lobby (just a couple arm chairs in the middle of the room) and watch the sun move past the enormous semi-circular stained glass window, look in any direction to ponder adorned architectural details, and close your eyes to listen to the echoes and murmurs of daily business.
These banks exist in out-of-the-way places, but almost every building is worth rediscovering for anyone interested in American architecture.
What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?
Well I’m still a young professional, but my advice to my peers would be to do projects that excite you with people that inspire you. Go beyond the office, and find ways to collaborate with friends: enter competitions, make up theoretical projects, or go on road trips. Find a tribe of designers, and do work together. Don’t worry about finding clients, just work on something fun.
The profession requires young designers to learn so many important skills (e.g. client engagement, project management, codes, structures, visualizations, billing, etc). But most of us fell in love with the act of designing, and the untethered possibilities that arise from creative people imagining wild ideas. I worry that, as young designers, by the time we scratch our way to a place of being a design lead (or worse, we are redirected to management), we’ve lost our bold passion for design.