Good, Thoughtful Hosts #301: What is Inspiration? with David Koel

In this first episode of season 3, we’re diving into our theme of inspiration, be it a person, place, activity, organization, or something else entirely. We’ll talk with Cushing Terrell Design Director David Koel, who helps us set the tone for the rest of the season.

Episode #301 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

David Koel: My name is David Koel and I’m an architect with Cushing Terrell. I actually wear a lot of different hats at the firm, but the one I like best is Design Director, because that, I guess for me, just means I’m a creative by nature. I get to spend a lot of time in the creative sandbox with that title.

Sarah Steimer: Awesome. Well again, David, thank you so much for joining us today. So we are, of course, sort of kicking off this new season of the podcast, and not that I haven’t been excited about all the other topics from the other seasons, but this one I’m super psyched to talk about because we are going to focus on the idea of inspiration. One of the things that, you know, when I was doing a little bit of background research myself, I like this idea that what inspiration really does is sort of fill a void that maybe you didn’t know that you even had. But it’s this idea that it fills a critical void in your psyche. And I think that’s such a cool concept because it does sort of help to, you know, bridge the gaps in what you were thinking about or maybe how you wanted to produce something or imagine something. So to you, what’s what’s sort of your definition, I suppose, of inspiration and the role that it plays in your work in particular?

David Koel: That’s a really great question. And as you’re saying that, it makes me think of the process of design. In my world, inspiration, you know, we need to have it in order to create deeper, more meaningful projects, at least in the architectural realm. So, inspiration is extremely, extremely important to add that third or fourth level of meaning to the project. Without inspiration, I think projects, speaking from that level, are nothing more than walls and roofs and things. And that’s just not enough. We need to provide something that provides meaning for the client, and in many ways, even for our own team, so that they have something to passionately work toward. Without it, you’re just sort of drawing lines on a piece of paper.

And speaking about a piece of paper, I do a lot of initial work by hand and just sketching and so forth. And it’s interesting when you think about inspiration because a blank piece of paper is exactly that — it is nothing but a canvas that has yet to be painted upon. And you need to provide something, I think, inspirational to start drawing on that piece of paper. And that’s the same with the project site. You know, we have a piece of land somewhere, but the truth is, you’ve got to put a building on it and you can either just square up a building and put it on there and walk away, or you can provide something that’s meaningful. For example, for a project site, inspiration is important, but the truth is every site that we work on is unique in its own way. And so the site itself is inspirational because the sun acts differently on different sites. The access to the site is different from where the roads come from. Views are always different. Then on top of all that, a client has different desires. They might want to design something in a certain style, or they have a certain characteristic they’re after. Or different things that they’re looking for.

So in that regard, all of those essentially are … you could call them constraints if you want to because they are things that overlay expectation on the project. But in truth, they really become inspirations because without them, you’re just right back to that blank sheet of paper. If that makes any sense? Inspiration is necessary for us to produce something meaningful and unique in our industry.

Sarah Steimer: When you say to be able to make something unique to make it maybe it sounds like even sometimes I’m sure even reflective of the area or however, it might be helping to answer. Does it seem like I almost accidentally gave it away? Does it feel like, uh, does it feel like you’re, you’re in a way? Uh, helping to answer the questions that you might have had. So let’s say you’re working on a project and you’re just not sure how you want something to look or how you want it to serve the people, how you want it to, you know, whatever it may be. Do you think that finding inspiration helps to answer those as yet unanswered questions as you’re designing something? Yeah, I think it can. And it’s also a great way to provide rationale for a solution, if you will, um, to say that, you know, there there’s because again, on most projects, there’s probably 100, 000 ways to solve them.

David Koel: I mean, and what we really need to create in order to create something, um. Unique and, and I think inspirational is a good word for it, but also, um, appropriate for most projects is you need to come up with, uh, the rationale that says this is the best way to do it. And in some cases, you need to prove that it’s really the only way to do it in order to get your, your project off of the ground.

And so that comes from, being highly attentive to the needs of the site, kind of like we’ve talked about, and then the necessary elements that the, that the client might. Want to put on the project, but, um, I think if, if particularly then you’re right, though, if you can come up with a solutions that, um, particularly do serve in whether the client or the general public with the solutions, these are all more, uh, inspirational elements.

Sarah Steimer: As someone who considers herself more of an extrovert, as soon as the seasons change and we get into fall and winter, I find a lot of my inspiration from being out and about in the world. And the second the world is sort of like, hello, this is inhospitable for you now, you know, I, I can, I, it’s a little bit trickier for me to like, you know, I can’t take my long walks. I can’t, you know, I’m not as motivated to go out and about. And I felt myself really struggling to find inspiration for really. Anything. I enjoy being inspired. It’s a good feeling. I think a lot of creative people like that just, that comes pretty naturally. Can you talk about, you know, I, I, it’s nice to believe that we all stumble upon inspiration. That’s sort of the romantic idea, but I think there’s something to be said too about putting yourself in situations to seek out inspiration. How do you, how have you in your experience sought it out and maybe have you ever tried to guide other people in how to seek out inspiration?

David Koel: Well, I think I relate to what you’re saying there as far as going outdoors in particular because I live in one of the most amazing places and I think the world where I go into just as an example, um, there’s been times in the past when I’ll just sort of drop everything and there’s something innate in me and probably in you and others that at some point you just recognize that you’ve come to a dead end and you are just stone cold tired of sitting around and what you’re doing. And I just, and honestly, I think that’s something you learn over time about yourself but he’s like, I just have to get outside.

And so I’ll get in the car. The car first and I’ll drive 30 minutes into Glacier National Park, which is, you know, I’m just about at doorstep here. And once you step into that, I would call that the deep outdoors deep nature because Once you head into that park, by the way, It’s it’s very sparse for the most part once you get onto the backcountry trails or if you decide to go off trail and climb a mountain or something and There’s something about uh That distance from other people and also you put yourself in a position, honestly, of borderline survival in some instances, because at any moment, you know, honestly, in those, in those situations, you could come upon a grizzly bear, or you could fall off of a rock and perish.

Those are, I know it sounds morbid, but there’s something about that situation where you recognize that something else is going on and you’re, you’re, you’re touching on the edge of actually the potential for survival things to happen. And something changes in your brain when that, when that happens. And And you start to, you start to think a whole lot more clearly. And, uh, and I think it, it just sort of resets in some instances, everything that you were struggling with when you’re sitting at your desk at the office, you forget about all that and you are just suddenly really, really alive. And that reset is extremely important. At least it is to me. And I think it is something that a lot of people should. Consider, uh, trying or striving for because, uh, you don’t, you don’t think about, you know, those projects that are sitting at a desk waiting for you or the clients that are waiting for phone calls.

You are thinking about one putting one foot in front of the other and exerting a lot of energy to get to the top of a mountain or whatever you’re doing out here. And, uh, and by the time you get to the top, you feel extraordinary elation and it’s the best feeling in the world. All those things that you used to worry about seem extremely small. They are miles away. There are thousands of feet below you. And, uh, that to me is how you reset and recharge the inspiration meter, if you will.

Sarah Steimer: When I was doing a little bit of research just on the idea of inspiration, there were a couple of psychologists thrash and Elliot. Uh, they talked about this inspiration scale, which, , within that, they found that, uh, inspired people were more open to new experiences, which basically sounds like this idea that you’re talking about where it’s like, you might have the experience of you’re going to have to be a little bit survivalistic. You know, like you don’t know what’s going to happen out there. You just have to be open to it, but then also having a higher absorption in their own tasks, which is also what it sounds like you’re talking about too, which being able to go back to your desk and being like, all right, I can do this now. I am in it. Like this is something different.

David Koel: Exactly. That’s exactly right. Yeah. You know, the whole time that you’re, I think it is simply, again, a mental reset, I guess, is what really, really happens. I can’t do it when I’m, when I’m, uh, at home or when I’m at the office or even just going for a walk around the block. It’s just not enough time and it’s not enough distance. You need to literally get away to the point where, you just have to get far enough away where, where literally, um, you, and you start, you start exercising the endorphins, start doing what they’re doing in your, your mind, you’re breathing fresh air, deep lungs of it and getting tired.

And that’s all, that’s all just, I think part of the physiological difference, um, again, just resets. And then on the drive home, you know, you’re starting to calm back down. Maybe some of those thoughts are starting to enter your head, but they’re. They’re almost like they’re refreshed, like I said, with those deep breaths of oxygen, the ideas are fresher as a result. And I think, uh, you just see them differently. They’re no longer, um, uh, something that you feel like you have to do. You actually feel fueled, I think, to, um, to, to take on the challenge. You’re actually excited by those challenges now. And without those breaks though, mental breaks or physical breaks, whatever they are, you will always be in this sort of slog of it.

The projects will always feel almost like a chore. People just have to learn to pull away. Um, so that to me, when you talk about sources of inspiration, that’s a physical source. That’s a physiological source. It’s not, it’s not necessarily a person. It’s more a place or a thing, but that’s okay. That’s all cumulative. And what makes, I think, a better, more creative, um, or creative person.

Sarah Steimer: Well, then let’s, let’s talk about, uh, those sources of inspiration that are from people. So whether it is, uh, the person themselves and how they go about their practice that you might find inspiring, or just something that a person created, cause you know, that, that human to human inspiration is a little bit different. It’s not necessarily this idea of just trying to have a clean slate to think about things anew. It’s sort of seeing what someone else has done, seeing maybe their process or the results and going, Ooh, I can add this little bit of knowledge to my work. So what’s, what’s different to you maybe about human-focused inspiration? Yeah. Or human-driven,

David Koel: Just a great question, you know, I, I think, I think I find myself drawn to, or inspired by, I suppose, some traits, people that are really, really positive, um, people that are really, really supportive of others, people that are, and yet. You know, you can be those things you’d be extremely talented, but people that are also very selfless and even humble.

I think there’s an interesting sort of duality there. I think it’s easy for someone to be highly talented, highly positive, but also be highly egotistical. I’m not exactly inspired by that kind of person. I’m, I’m really inspired by the type of person that can be all those things, but yet puts other people.
In front of them, pushes them to the surface, essentially. And takes a backseat to the credit, for example. That’s really hard, I think, for a lot of people to do. But when I see that duality in people, it really inspires me because I, I want to be more like that. I, um, and I can think about, I can think of a lot of At least in the architectural industry, a lot of different architects and designers that, whose work I admire greatly, um, but because I don’t know them, I don’t consider them necessarily an inspiration.

Um, when I think about even like my own firm. You know, we’ve got 400 and some folks and about half of them are architects and I’ve, I’ve worked with, I would say most of them, but you know, there’s only, there’s a few people that rise to the surface. And one of them is a younger guy, a younger guy, an architect in our Boise office.

And his name is Brad Dunbar, and he is a, uh, You know, he’s he’s a younger architect, but he is he embodies all those things I just mentioned. He’s, he’s humorous and funny. He approaches all projects, highly positive, very supportive. He’s, uh, you know, he’s always looking to do the best thing and he pulls people together. And, uh, when those emotions start to flow like that, Those, you know, the, the positivity of that kind of connection, it will work its way into a, a better solution under the project when you can support the team, when you can create positivity, like he does every time, um, it just affects the project and the process and inevitably it affects the outcome. I truly believe that. And so, um, I look to guys like Brad and when I, when I show up in meetings with him, you know, I’ll, first of all, I’ll start to make fun of him because he loves it. That’s the way I inspired, by the way, Sarah, I make fun of people. There is creativity.

Sarah Steimer: And humor. No, I stand by that. There’s so much creativity in humor. Don’t say that that’s not true.

David Koel: I know. And of course I’m, I’m, he knows I’m joking, but he takes humor well, but he’s very, you know, he’s just, he’s just a super great guy and, uh, and he just makes teams better and for that reason, he’s inspiration, I picked him out of the entire firm as an example of that.

When I, when I think about architecture in general, like, um, as far as our industry. Um, again, there’s hundreds of thousands of, of, of great architects. There’s hundreds of what we refer to as starchitects in the, in the industry. Those are, those are, you know, top international architects, but I don’t know many of them personally, but I do know a guy and that’s the fellow we went to visit in Duluth. Um, he is, I do consider him a starchitect. Because he’s done some really, really great work, um, you know, around, around the planet. His name is David Salmela.

But he’s basically a one man show. He lives in northern, uh, northern Minnesota, up in Duluth, um, Lake Superior. And, uh, he and his wife live, uh, he works in the lower level of his home. That’s his little office. And his, his house is, uh, two, you know, Two floors above that, and he lives on a little cliff overlooking the, um, overlooking the, the bay, really, in Lake Superior, and, um, you know, he practices, from what I can tell, you know, basically one or two projects at a time, and each of his projects are just these beautiful little jewel boxes, a lot of them were homes or small businesses and things, and he is just an extraordinary designer, and yeah, that’s Uh, and yet, so we had the chance to visit him and I’ve, I’ve been back to see him once or twice since then, just because my, uh, we have family in Duluth. I’ve, Hey, Dave, you want to mind if we help have coffee or whatever? And he shows, he invites us to his house and we get to, you know, hang out with his wife and my kids are playing with their toys and things. It’s just, he’s so warm, so congenial and so, you know, so open, um, to folks like me that I, you know, I have to, I have to put them on the list of one of the most inspirational people.

In our industry for me, because, uh, you know, I, I think, um, the fact that he’s, he’s willing to open up his home to me just to kind of come and say hello. And then touring his, his office environment, you know, you see how he actually works. And again, you know, one or two projects at a time, you walk around and you’re surrounded by, you know, hand built little models that he’s done for every single project.

And, uh, and, uh, I just think that approach to architecture in, in, uh, in that manner and in that environment is extremely refreshing to me and inspirational because, you know, coming from a firm of, of, you know, 400 plus people. You know, uh, we just, we just do it so differently and I can’t help, but wonder, I can’t help, but wonder if we should almost be backpedaling a little bit and doing it a little more like David.
I’m going to get a t shirt that says, “Do it like David.”

Sarah Steimer: I feel like,”Do it like David” was probably the original “Bend it like Beckham” like before they workshopped that out. If you could, what would you say are maybe two to three creative qualities that David has that have really inspired you, because it sounds like you’ve spent some time with this guy, not just talking with him, but actually seeing his work, being among his work. So, you know, two or three creative qualities that have inspired you from those visits from those talks.

David Koel: Yeah, no, great. And, and I, so first of all, I think number one, David takes the appropriate amount of time to study projects. I think in today’s world. Um, we are driven more to do more with less to do more with less time and with less energy and with less staff. I don’t think David. Gives a hoot about that concept. He does it. He does it right. He takes the time to learn about his client, learn about his site, and spend the appropriate time to literally craft the work. I think that’s extremely important and that’s something he does well. I think again his approach, number two, would be just this sort of selfless approach to it isn’t about me.

It’s about the project and it’s about the client. Those are two aspects. I think the other piece in terms of literally an attention to what’s right in architecture, David, and he even said it, um, I think more than once in the time we spent together, he thinks, um, he thinks a lot about, which is really what we do, but he does it better than anybody.

He thinks about the, um, the crafting, if you will, of natural light is, is in his mind, you know, he’s thinking about the project from the perspective of. Natural light and ventilation, maybe more so than things like the look and feel and the shape of it. You know, a lot of us craft a building sometimes from the outside in.
I think he’s thinking about it from the inside out. And I can even see that in his work. And it’s about where the windows, where the skylights, where the things should be that are gonna push light into the building appropriately. And he’s not, you know, he’s not even necessarily, from what I can tell, caring about, like, specific patterns or proportions necessarily on the exterior first.

It’s more about how do you control and appropriately invite and protect from light. And then we’re gonna wrap the building around that concept. Those are things that I think a lot of people Never get to that level of design. And I think David just really

Sarah Steimer: owns I wanted to also talk a little bit about, because we, you know, we are talking about a fellow designer, but, you know, I wanted to talk about drawing inspiration from creatives outside of the industry that you might be working in. So, you know, for myself, I’m a writer, but I can draw inspiration from music, or I can go to a museum and feel inspired by something. Uh, what, what do you think about, I suppose just, this is a pretty open ended question, but, uh, do you have thoughts on inspiration for your own work from creatives outside of your industry or outside of your area of expertise?

David Koel: Oh, for sure. Cause I do think it crosses over and, and, and, um, I can’t even back up and think that, um, I, I know this because, um, at least for me, the creative process is obviously extremely emotional. There’s almost like a euphoria that overcome and maybe you’ve experienced that as well. You know, uh, I say this because, um, I, I kind of started long ago in just, uh, when I was a kid, I did a lot of just hand sketching. I wanted to be a cartoonist, honestly. And then in the end, I ended up in architecture for some reason. I’m not sure how or why. I’m not even sure if I still should be an architect, but we’ll talk about that another time.

Sarah Steimer: That’s how you really know you’re doing it right.

David Koel: That could be, but I, I’m hoping I’m going to get it around to answering your question. But the, uh, I was just thinking about, uh, when I was, uh, when I was a kid, I would, I would sit down at the, at the kitchen table and, and just start drawing cartoons and eventually I kind of lost the fear of a blank piece of paper that I talked about that earlier But a blank piece of paper for a lot of people is scary because they don’t want to mess it up and It’s got to be perfect the first time but there to me a blank piece of paper is is absolutely, it’s nothing but opportunity to me now that that’s something it took a while to understand and appreciate Uh, but that happened because I was a kid and I, and my, over time, my mom realized that what she needed to, to do to keep me happy was for my birthday, she would buy me literally like a ream, you know, a 500 sheet, uh, you know, box of, of, uh, eight and F 11 paper.
And I just. So that I could just go through it as quickly as possible. You start to lose the fear of paper when you have 500 sheets every year to work with. But I would draw cartoons and staple them together and make books and, and sell them to my mom for 10 cents if I could get it. Later in life, I guess I should say later in life. I, um, I started creating cartoons again. And in fact, maybe in the last 15 or 20 years, I started redrawing her to just see if I could do it.
And, um, and I also created a children’s book, which I tried to sell to Amazon. They didn’t really like it. So it doesn’t really matter. The whole point of all of this is to say. When I’m in that zone of, of like the highest inspiration and, and sort of art form, there’s a euphoria that comes over me at least, and it’s directly connected to my left hand through a pen or a pencil.

And there’s times when I’m like, like drawing or, or creating something, I’ll start to even sort of chuckle to myself, which, which seems really odd, but it happens because I’m having such Dang great time doing it. I’m actually kind of laughing at myself. The fact that this is such a great, uh, I guess what I’m, what I’m saying is that same inspiration sort of travels through to anything creative. It travels through through, um, like really, really good moments of architecture, but it also can be pulled through when you’re talking to other people are being inspired by other forms of art. It’s not necessarily that it’s really that same emotion that you’re trying to track down and trying to reproduce every single time. You just get it in different ways through music, through visual arts. Performing arts, things like that. But to me, it’s all the same emotion. You’re just looking for that little high in different, in different ways.

Sarah Steimer: I mean, you keep, um, bringing up this idea of euphoria and it makes me think of the concept of, um, the flow state. And it’s, it is that idea of you’re sort of working at the highest level of the skills that you’ve honed over the years in addition to being challenged at a very high level. And it sort of creates that, you know, feeling of euphoria, that feeling of the flow state, et cetera. And I like this idea of seeing other people’s art, whether it’s directly related to what you do or, you know, it’s just something that you’re listening to, you’re seeing whatever it may be. But this acknowledgement of, oh, I see that you were at that point. I know it feels like when I’m at that point and that in and of itself can be inspiring like oh I want to get back to that like I want to you know it’s like when you go and see like a really great like theater or music performance and you can see you can watch the members like really jamming or whatever it may be and it’s like it’s like game recognizes game I suppose is the best way I can put it you know where it’s it’s sort of like I I see I want to see what you’re doing there.
I want to, I want to feel that again too.

David Koel: Yeah, it’s exactly. And I mean, yeah, this is great. We should talk more, Sarah. This is really…

Sarah Steimer: We’ll swap playlists.

David Koel: Yeah, I think you’re dead on. Right. And only because I would say, I mean, just to further that conversation just a little bit. Um, you know, when I was a kid, I appreciated Music. And I think to the point where it’s like, dang, I really want to learn to play drums. And so, uh, that drove me to learn to a new trait, a new talent. And, uh, and I even got to use it. . But, you know, there are, I mean, you’re right.

Sarah Steimer: So, uh, this is, this is such an interesting conversation. And, um, like I said, before we even started recording, I’m sure that we could talk and talk and talk and talk. But, uh, before we sign off for this episode, uh, David, was, was there anything else that you just wanted to mention in terms of creative inspiration? Just as sort of like a final thought or a final Even, I don’t know, recommendation. I, you know, you already said like getting outside helps, but, uh, you know, when it comes to really kind of marking those moments of inspiration.

David Koel: You know, I just think I would encourage anybody listening to, to take the time to figure out what it is that, that drives, drives them from a creative standpoint and then just focus on that. And when I think do it without fear and without apology because, uh, because, you know, and I say that from the perspective of, uh, I would, I guess, uh, Um, you know, a leader at the firm here. I want our, our team and I want anybody in our industry to be at their absolute best. And so, you know, I think it’s, I think it’s important to find out what drives you and what recharges you and to just get after it figured out.
And again, do it, do it without apology, because we need people to be at their best, uh, to do the best work that they can, not only For Cushing Terrell, but also for, you know, the state of Montana, but also for the United States and the people of the world, because good design does. Matter. It really does matter.
And if we’re only sort of floating through our careers, we are not doing anything for the planet or for its people. So, uh, I know I’m making that into a very, very broad, um, and, uh, probably, um, probably overstating it, but I don’t, I don’t think I am. I think we need, we need our, uh, we need our creatives to be at their very best. So, um, You know, in general, I, I’m really thankful for the opportunity to hang out with you a little bit, Sarah, and I hope that I’ve provided a little something for you to work with here.

Sarah Steimer: Yeah, absolutely. But, but I think that’s, I think that’s a really good, , takeaway is that idea that inspiration is important so that we can work at the highest possible levels we can, uh, you know, Things don’t get solved. Problems don’t get solved without creativity, without working at the peak performance that we can, which does require being inspired. Um, so I think that’s, I think that’s a fantastic takeaway and a perfect launch pad for the rest of the season. So David, thank you so much. For helping us to kick this off today. Um, we’ll be talking again. And you know, this also puts you in a position where you have to listen to every episode coming up. So, uh, sorry, there’s at least one listener for each episode. Uh, but, uh, but thank you again. I really do appreciate it. And I’m, I’m looking forward to, um, discussing this moving forward.

David Koel: Yeah. Thank you, Sarah. Appreciate the, uh, the opportunity and I’m happy to contribute anytime you need me.

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