Portrait by Glenn Glasser. All photos courtesy Commune
Name: Pamela Shamshiri
Occupation: I’m a designer and one of the founders of Commune. At Commune we really design for the experience, whether it’s graphic or architectural or interior design. Whatever contributes to the overall experience and vibe of a project is what we focus on. We’re very experience-oriented, but primarily it’s interior design.
Location: Los Angeles
Current projects: We have a lot of hotel projects in the works in Japan and in the States. We have a handful of residences in both California and New York—we tend to do more historical residences that require some restoration. We also have a few restaurants and retail projects coming up.
Mission: We take a holistic approach to design, and we blur the lines between disciplines. Internally, I think our process is a little bit different than at other design companies. We assemble the right team for the job, and sometimes that means you’re a graphic designer but you’re asked to contribute on architecture, sometimes you’re an interior designer but you’re looking at identity and branding. We really just ask people to think holistically—to look at a project from all sides, not just from their area of expertise.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I was nine years old. My dad had a furniture business and was an industrial designer. He had a six-story furniture showroom that we always played in: one floor was kitchens, one floor was dining rooms, and another floor was all living rooms. My brother and I grew up playing there every day after school. I didn’t know what kind of designer I wanted to be, but I knew very early on that I wanted to be in some kind of design.
Shamshiri with her Commune cofounders Roman Alonso (left) and Steven Johanknecht.
Education: In college I studied art history, architectural history, and theory at Smith College in Massachusetts. Then I went on to NYU for graduate school to study production design. I did set design for a while, which is what trained me to think about design more holistically. Because you really learn how to tell a story—whether you’re using period flatware or makeup or hair to tell it, you’re communicating a character and a narrative. That really was the basis for Commune.
First design job: My friend Dewey Nicks is a fashion photographer. He hired me to be a prop stylist for a Tommy Hilfiger shoot right after I graduated.
What was your big break?Ace Palm Springs. That was the first hotel project that we ever did, and it was one of the earlier Ace Hotels as well. I think both companies grew up together on that job. We were doing things outside of the norm, taking a very urban brand and coming up with the Palm Springs experience. We did something somewhat original that really affected other hotels after that. We had a very tight budget and a motel that we converted. How do you create a campus that is about community and about celebrating the desert somehow? That’s what we set out to do and it was one of my favorite milestones at Commune for sure. Alex Calderwood was one of the Ace Hotel founders and was good friends with my partner Roman. He sort of believed in us before we believed in us. We just went for it and he backed us all the way. It was pretty incredible.
We started Commune about 12 years ago now. The four of us were old friends and we got together over sushi. I wanted to settle down and have a family, Roman wanted to get out of PR and branding to start a whole new career, Steven was getting out of retail, and my brother and I had worked together—he was always the person that made everything happen. The four of us got together and said, Hey, we’re all sort of due for new lives. Let’s pull together all our resources and put teams together that are very project-based, that utilize all the artisans we know and all the incredible people we each knew from our paths in life. We were called Commune because it was about coming together for one mission.
The entrance to Commune’s studio in West Hollywood
Describe your workspace: We are around 50 people in an old Mason building. We’re sort of like sardines in there. When you walk in, every wall is covered in visuals and pin-ups, with material everywhere. The interior designers sit next to architects, who sit next to graphic designers—everyone’s all mixed up. I think it feels really creative and energetic. You never know what you’re going to be working on at Commune: one day you’re working on a hotel, the next day you’re working on a tiny cabin, and then you’re working on a rug. It may not be the most efficient setup, but it’s very creative, good brain food.
I do have an office with a great old Victorian Chesterfield sofa and a lot of things I love in there. It tends to be a smaller meeting room more than anything. I’m pretty mobile and tend to flow from desk to desk, so we use my office to have smaller meetings. I’m not a sit-at-a-computer kind of person.
“The four of us got together and said, Hey, we’re all sort of due for new lives. Let’s pull together all our resources and utilize all the incredible people we each knew from our paths in life.”
What is your most important tool? I know how to collaborate, and I know how to bring the best out of people. More and more that seems to be my role.
What is the best part of your job? Dreaming big in the beginning. I feel like doing the concepts for projects is the best part for me.
What is the worst part of your job? When I misjudge a client and it’s sort of a mismatch. And then you still have to carry it through because you have to be professional.
Commune's most recent commercial project is the Durham Hotel in North Carolina, completed last year.
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What time do you get up and go to bed? I get up at 5:30 a.m. every day and I go to bed around 11:00.
How do you procrastinate? I read cookbooks. I used to cook a lot and I fantasize about cooking again.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? I plan all my outfits for the week ahead of time. I actually have hangers mounted on a long wall, and then I literally lay them out like in a store. It helps the mornings go by quicker when you travel a lot and have kids.
“I know how to collaborate, and I know how to bring the best out of people. More and more that seems to be my role.”
What is the best-designed object in your home? My whole house is a beautiful object. I live in a Schindler house and I think that the great room is the best designed. Schindler described it as a spatial cave for viewing nature. He designed the room after he went to the Anasazi cave dwellings, and so you’re sitting in a room that’s more solid at the back—the shape is very similar to a cave. It’s all glass in front of you and he planted every tree off the point of the fireplace. So you’re in this beautiful treescape. One of my favorite things is to sit in that room when it rains. It’s a room that gives back; it’s very healing. I feel very lucky to live there.
The kitchen of a different residential project—this one in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles
Commune’s interior design for Verve Coffee in West Hollywood
Who is your design hero? I have so many! Donald Judd is one of them. Also Corbusier, and Charlotte Perriand. With Judd, I know it’s minimalism, but he had such an appreciation for beauty, whether it was Shaker or modern. He sort of spans all eras, and I like that about his interiors. Corbusier is very sculptural and involved color; his work is about texture and materiality, and I respond to that in his spaces. For Perriand, I think you can also see all the different influences—how they filter through into a very clean aesthetic. I would say proportion and scale are my favorite things about her.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Now that I’m a little older and looking back with more experience, I feel like listening is really important. There’s pure aesthetic design, but to be a successful working designer with clients who are happy, you have to learn how to listen to people. To get inside their heads and hear what they want in order to deliver it. I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but when I was younger I would just sort of push my will on people more than I do now. I really, really try to listen, because I do know that a client can bring you to a refreshingly new place, and that’s good for everybody. I embrace that process and I’m less scared of it now.
In 2014, Commune designed the Irene Neuwirth flagship on Melrose Place in West Hollywood.
The store includes a diorama by the artist Clare Crespo, with Neuwirth’s jewelry displayed among the tropical birds.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? I don’t immediately walk into a room and know the answer to it. For me it is about problem solving, and it is a combination of architecture, the neighborhood, the room, the period you’re in, but also your client. Who they are, what they want, what they’re trying to communicate. That doesn’t all come together when you walk into a room for the first time. It’s a whole process with a lot of research and thinking.
What is exciting you in design right now? Travel is always exciting. Travel is changing, and there are these smaller, specialized hotels that are popping up, like Ett Hem in Sweden or the Chiltern Firehouse in London. Places like that that are eclectic but really precise in communicating a feeling. That’s exciting to me and I want to go and experience them. Those two are sort of outside your typical business model. I don’t quite understand how they work as a business, and I love that people do that regardless. I always enjoy traveling, and I think it’s really important for a designer to travel. Oscar Wilde once said, “To live is to travel, to travel is to live.” You can’t figure out one without the other.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.