Tearing down the Fourth Wall: Lisa Staprans and Armin Staprans of Staprans Design

What’s the difference between working with a designer who understands your space and your history —and copying a room from a magazine? It’s something like the difference between going to the theater versus watching a downloaded movie.  Here’s how.

Live theater is...live. Sets are built, lights are mounted, actors are costumed, and people interact.  In Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century, Caroline Heir suggests there are two live troupes in the theater, the actors and the audience. From the 16th century, the audience “troupe” learned to act invisible. A so-called fourth wall separates the two troupes — an invisible one-way divider that the audience can see through, but, the actors, we pretend, cannot.

 Interior Designer Lisa Staprans.

Interior Designer Lisa Staprans.

Like in the theater, sometimes an invisible wall separates the designer and the client.  Lisa Staprans is interested in removing this wall between all participants in a design project. She explains, “ clients are [often] inspired by images from a magazine, but if we provide something that is too formulaic then…[others] may like it, but it won’t be attuned to the people in the house. You have to establish trust to collaborate, to enable exploration, challenge, and ultimately wonderment, pleasure and a sense of well-being for the inhabitants in the space.” Without that sense of trust and collaboration, the relationship, and ultimately the space, will not exceed expectations.

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Lisa has spent her career in collaboration with talented architects, artisans and builders. She often works with her partner Armin Staprans (here testing a cardboard and wire mock-up of a pendant by David Weeks Studio). Armin manages the architecture and construction branch of Staprans Design. Trained in architecture at MIT and in large-scale construction in New York City, he returned to his native Bay Area to be involved in all aspects of a project. We sat down with Lisa and Armin Staprans to discuss theater and design.

Armin is part of a theater group which made the comparison between design and theater easily accessible. “In theater, there’s a reason they call it drama! You don’t know how the story will unfold and resolve. It’s dramatic for the actors as well as for the audience.” Considering the building process, he reflects, “When you invite the audience into the process, you don’t know how it will evolve. There will be creative tension. And at times, a performance or project may feel too challenging — then it takes exceptional effort to work it through together, and you can end up with exceptionally successful results.”

Lisa adds, “In good theater and good design you are left with a feeling of something bigger than yourself. Creating an environment where the participants can trust in the truth of the vision can, if you’re lucky, stir the truth within.”

Staprans Design recently remodeled a 1950s California ranch house. The clients participated in the unfolding design with knowledge on the seasons and light, the setting and their design sensibilities, but also as an appreciative audience, watching  the project as it morphed from wood framing to a true home.  Collaboration led to an end product that made the clients feel comfortable immediately. It felt so welcoming that Sunset Magazine staged a photo shoot in the kitchen collaboratively designed by Staprans Design, Garde Hvalsøe and Panafold. Read Sunset’s article featuring Melissa King on “How to Hot Pot” for Lunar New Year here