Designing Downtown: FORSarchitecture Sets the Mood at HUB, Playground, Downtown Kitchen

September 6, 2012

By Teya Vitu

It’s not really about the buildings or furnishings for married architects Miguel Fuentevilla and Sonya Sotinsky.

Miguel Fuentevilla and Sonya Sotinsky went with Astroturf for two of their walls, one wall with blue turf, another with white turf.

Perhaps you know their names, perhaps you don’t. You, however, most certainly know their interior designs.

They are the design team behind HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery with its upside-down lamp shades; Playground Lounge and its swings suspended above the bar and marbles ground into the floor; Downtown Kitchen+Cocktails, Borderlands Brewing Co. and the new eatery opening soon at 50 E. Broadway.

Beyond Downtown, Fuentevilla and Sotinsky have delivered their whimsical touches to North (in Tucson, Austin, Denver and Phoenix), Zinburger, Blanco, Tavolino (and its San Diego sister, Isola Pizzeria), Sir Vezas and dozens more restaurants, offices, and homes they have designed from the ground up.

“We definitely like to have fun moments with all our restaurants,” Sotinsky said.

They like to have fun moments with any waking moment. Their conference room has dark blue Astroturf as carpet and running up one wall – Sotinsky calls it “shag” – and the open office area has white Astroturf on one wall (normally used for hash marks and lines on sports fields).

“We have one person a day just come in to touch it,” Fuentevilla said.

The white Astroturf wall.

Fuentevilla and Sotinsky are the names behind FORSarchitecture+interiors, 245 E. Congress St., 15 years in business, on Congress Street since January 2012.

FORS stands for Fuentevilla or Sotinsky. Not “and.” Rather “or.” They are both equally colorful personalities à la Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Except Fuentevilla and Sotinsky bring this wit and sparkle to the world of architecture and interior design.

“People sometimes come to us and say ‘I just want a set of drawings to get a permit.’ Really?” Fuentevilla said. “We try to get them to buy into the project. So they put value in that design. They get to the point where they say ‘I have to have that faucet.”

How does this transformation unfold?

Clients have to complete a multi-page questionnaire that addresses matters such as who are you and how do you live so that FORS can create a unique project tailored to the client.

“Our philosophy is of storytelling through our projects,” Sotinsky said. “Even if they don’t see our story, they feel something experientially.”

It really isn’t about buildings and interiors for the FORS couple. It’s about creating an environment.

Notice the swings above the Playground Lounge bar and the playground addresses on the side.

“It’s giving it a life,” Fuentevilla said. “It’s more about a space than architecture. I think people want to be part of something, belong to something.”

Sotinsky and Fuentevilla met at architecture school at the University of Arizona. Sotinsky grew up in New Jersey but had an aunt an uncle who lived in Tucson and grandparents who spent winter in here. Fuentevilla is a Tucson native, born to Cuban refugee parents who were recruited as faculty for the opening year at Pima Community College.

Sotinsky went on to graduate school at UC Berkeley and Fuentevilla followed her. They married while living in Berkeley and joined separate architecture firms. Sotinsky’s tended toward residential projects and Fuentevilla’s toward commercial projects.

To this day, if there even is a distinction between the two, Sotinsky leans residential and Fuentevilla commercial. But since the 2008 economic crash, residential architecture has gone on the shelf, and FORS does more interiors than architecture.

Even when they designed custom homes, both easily crossed over from commercial to residential.

“It’s not a straight line at all. On every single project we collaborate,” Sotinsky said.

She is the lead on some projects, he takes the lead on some projects.

“When she’s the lead, she has the final say. When I’m the lead, I have the final say,” Fuentevilla said.

Before they started FORS, while they still lived in Berkeley, Fuentevilla was the lead designer reimagining the ghastly 1970s Park Mall into Park Place with its barrel vaulting and endless skylights.

“When Miguel told me he got that as a job, I just laughed, because the place was such a dog,” Sotinsky recalled.

They returned to Tucson in 1997 after seven years in the Bay Area to start their own architecture firm.

You’ll find upside down lampshades above you at HUB Restaurant.

“I was hugely pregnant when we moved here,” Sotinsky said.

“She was eight months pregnant and we had to paint the house,” Fuentevilla added.

“We wanted to open a business, buy a house and have a kid – all in the same month,” Sotinsky continued.

Starting a company coincided with wanting to enter to enter an architecture competition put on by Metropolitan Home magazine. Only problem: they didn’t even have a business name yet. On the spur of the moment they came up with FORS.

FORS has had high-profile projects all along, but until this year their office was anything but high-profile. They worked out of their Sam Hughes Neighborhood home until moving onto Congress this year.

“I did North (restaurant) in Austin out of my bedroom,” Fuentevilla said.

They actually had a back bedroom that served as an office, and in 2007 they added an office to their home with a separate entrance.

“We were laboring anonymously,” Fuentevilla said. “Now we are front and center. People are recognizing us.”

Last year they realized they should be Downtown.

“We were trying to convince people that Downtown is this great place and we were holed up in Sam Hughes,” Fuentevilla said. “It was time to be part of the urban fabric of Downtown.”

FORS mixed old and new for HUB’s dining room. The original brick was revealed, accented with ropes.

Sotinsky was less enthusiastic, at first.

“Initially, I was opposed to moving out. I’ll have to drive to work,” she said. Mind you, they live barely 2 miles from Congress and 5th Avenue.  “Now being down here and feeling all the energy, I just love being here on a daily basis.”

FORSarchitecture+interiors is in the street-level commercial addition to the One North Fifth Apartments. Their neighbors are Sparkroot, Xoom Juice, Yoga Oasis and Sacred Machine.

Their landlord is Scott Stiteler, who owns the One North Fifth complex, the Congress Street buildings across the street with HUB and Playground and he co-owns the Rialto Building with the Mars and Beyond exhibit. FORS designed the interiors of HUB and Playground and is master planning the future use of the Rialto Building

You’d think it’s a natural progression that the FORS office ended up in Stiteler’s building. Sotinsky was aghast when Stiteler suggested it.

“Why don’t you go in here,” Stiteler offered.

“That’s horrible,” Sotinsky responded. “You don’t put an office in a store front.”

“It will be great,” Stiteler encouraged.

“Now we can’t leave,” Sotinsky said. “Next month we are going to do a tiny little gift shop up front with modern gifts and small housewares.”