Nils Finne, AIA, has long exemplified the highly skilled regional practitioner. Based in Seattle, he draws on Asian, Scandinavian, and mid-century modernist influences in work that distills the environmental and cultural currents of the contemporary Pacific Northwest. But the Internet recognizes no regional boundaries, and in recent years Finne has seen his base of potential clients broaden to include anyone who can type “Seattle modern architect” into a web browser. “Over the last three or four years, the Internet has become the primary vehicle for clients to find us,” Finne says, “and it has made my work increasingly available to a national audience.” His four-person firm, Finne Architects, recently completed custom homes in Massachusetts and northern Michigan, has houses under construction in North Carolina and Oregon, and is in design on projects in Texas and California. The North Carolina clients contacted Finne after seeing his Michigan house online. “They called me from London and said they wanted to talk about a new house in North Carolina,” he says. “That’s the new world right there. It’s a phenomenal development, and it’s kept us in a much better position during the recession.”

Despite his deep connection with the Pacific Northwest, Finne enjoys adapting his work to new settings. Of the Massachusetts project, he notes, “It became more and more rooted in New England as we went along. I didn’t want to just plant a Seattle house in Ipswich, Mass.” But exploring new territory isn’t as different from working at home as one might expect. “The tension between localism and more universal and general design principles should be present in every project,” he says. The challenges of remote projects lie as much in communication and process as in design. “You have to be very articulate about the design and good at presenting images. You have to become much more aware about why you’re doing things,” says Finne, who finds writing a useful test of the clarity of his ideas. “If your thinking about something is sloppy, that sloppiness shows up in your email,” he says.

Wherever Finne ventures, two elements of his approach remain as strong as ever: the furniture he designs for most projects and the deftly managed natural light that animates all of his buildings. Finne developed his mastery of the latter as project architect for Richard Meier’s Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles, where the task was delivering precise levels of light onto a work of art. “Those principles, from gallery design, are universal in architecture,” he says. “You deal with the specifics of how light lands on the building. If it’s handled well, it’s a delight; if it’s handled poorly, it’s a disaster. One of my favorite devices is a high clerestory window, rather than a direct horizontal aperture.” The soft, diffuse light that fills his interiors also saves energy, he notes, adding that clients often tell him, “We haven’t turned the lights on in days.”

Finne’s custom furniture illuminates his work in other ways. With the addition of furnishings that reflect the building’s overall aesthetic, he says, “the level of the design becomes highly personal. It’s localism taken to the ultimate degree.” Creating tables, beds, lighting fixtures, and bathroom hardware also allows Finne and his associates to experiment with design ideas. “We draw these things at full scale,” he says. “You can’t manipulate the design of a building at full scale.” The results become part of the firm’s visual vocabulary. “These patterns and CNC techniques cross over from the furniture into stair railings and things like that,” says Finne, who has been working for the past three months on a pair of 14-foot-long lighting fixtures made of fused glass rods. “It’s a labor of love,” he admits. “I choose not to even try to bill for most of this design work. The clients will pay for something to be made; that’s how it becomes affordable.” Because it amplifies the power of his buildings, the furniture yields marketing dividends, Finne believes. But its primary purpose is to complete the architecture, and in so doing, it justifies whatever time it takes. “In all questions of form,” Finne says, “I believe you have to take as much time as it takes for the form to reach its ultimate level of simplicity. The element of time—you just can’t divorce that from good design.”

Firm Specs:

Years in practice: 21; Active projects: 5; Projects completed in 2011: 2; Areas of interest: Custom new homes, renovations, and lighting and furniture design

Finne Architects Past Articles