Michael Ryan: the Man, the Art, the Architecture

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After having attended Penn State for both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, he proceeded to work for a large architectural firm. He soon tired of that and broke out to work independently starting his own firm, Michael Ryan Architects, in 1985.

Over the years, taking into consideration how his clients wrestled with the myriad decisions they had to make when undertaking large building projects, he integrated a holistic approach to the design process. Thus he began a practice of offering complete design services with the inclusion of furniture.

It was a sound decision; as many of his clients’ projects are vacation and second homes, they appreciate the ease and convenience with which his firm handles all of the nitty-gritties.

Smoke-Rise-EntryAs his work became more well-known, Ryan started to work outside LBI and his clientele grew regionally. In search of a city office, he settled in Philadelphia, where the firm has now had a presence for eight years. He retains his office in LBI to keep him connected to the firm’s projects on the island. His immediate goal is to diversify his practice with the emphasis on the holistic approach.

His early influences were Le Corbusier’s early and later work, Frank Gehry, and American architecture in general. He designs from his own personal point of view and does so unapologetically. But if his pursuit is architecture, his passion is fine art, by his own admission. He is influenced more by the art world than other architects. He reads European trade journals, including Italy’s Abitare, feeling they have more editorial. Ryan eschews the more celebrity-focused American glossies.

Accordingly, Ryan seeks a global aspect to his resources, constantly sourcing new materials, not for novelty but for improvement. He considers himself a “building architect” and gears his process always with the focus toward budgeting. Ryan says it’s a “question of always designing,” as was the case with his own home in the Catskills. An area with no construction industry to speak of, Ryan had to do all of his own legwork and procure materials from where he could. He was not thrown off by the lack of control over materials and resources, indeed he felt like a director of the parts and pieces coming together. He was dealing with local materials of the local vernacular, and was constantly designing to unite the components into a finished building.

Ryan’s approach is to design how people really live and not build “redundant spaces.”

Design is less about style and more about the true lifestyle of the customer and the functionality of the space.

Structures to which he gravitates are simple and rustic. Think mills, barns, stables, agricultural buildings, New Jersey farm stands, even a late 19th century industrial loft all comprise the “generic simplicity” of Minimalist architecture that Ryan admires. No pre-fab for him, he says, and that includes the current trend of shipping containers cum living spaces.

Smoke-Rise-FireplaceWhen asked what his favorite design element is, Ryan unhesitatingly responded, “Stairs.” He explained about the dynamic potential of them; how they “knit the house together” and relate to the other elements. He often uses the opportunity of a stairway to bring light into a space. Deftly manipulating combinations of materials and finishes is a trademark; high gloss, wood on wood, stone and slate, and glass all interplay in clean lines and clear delineations. He takes the crispness of glass and skillfully adds wood, metal, perhaps some stone. It all comes together in complete concord. His spaces beckon the visitor to come and view and repose.

Since most projects’ interiors are done in-house, Ryan has the ability to see his full design vision come to fruition; the approach is applied with detail, and his clients grant him the responsibility to do just that. They trust his proven expertise and ability to deliver the outcome which they expect and require.

With regard to his firm’s dynamic and workplace environment, Ryan shares that the firm has the feeling of a studio – active and interactive. Employees are encouraged to put their inspirations up on a metal board. “Whatever speaks to them,” Ryan tells me.

As to his success, Mike Ryan credits his parents and their parenting style. His father was a draftsman at an oil refinery and his mother was an administrative assistant. Ryan says they had a laissez-faire attitude about career, but not education. They never gave him any anxiety about what to do with his life and career. That freedom obviously paid off in spades, because Mike Ryan is a happy and contented man, doing what he loves, the definition of success by any measure.

RSVP Dinner Guest: Michael Ryan Architect

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“…Design is less about style and more about the True Lifestyle of the customer and the functionality of the space.”

Righty or lefty?
Left for writing and drawing… right for swinging bats and golf clubs… left for both catching and throwing (not as insurmountable as it sounds).

Cocktail of choice?
Gin Martini up, olives.

Favorite food?
Anything served in Thailand.

Favorite local restaurant?
I’m not a “favorites” person when it comes to this. Every great place has unique qualities, so I’m always in the moment when dining. If I had to pick one, it would be Le Virtu in South Philly…the closest thing to casual, everyday dining in Italy.

Best music?
I’m an active listener, so the passive aspect of “dinner music” escapes me. If I had to select, it would be Charlie Haden’s “Nocturne” or Federico Aubele’s “Amatoria”. Best to avoid the Sun City Girls, Animal Collective, Diplo, and Ariel Pink.

Prefer intimate dinners or large gatherings?
Smaller is usually better.

Most memorable dinner to date?
At La Bastide de Moustiers Sainte-Marie, in eastern Provence. Alain Ducasse runs this small Inn, (essentially a house) that is very unassuming and low key… then you sit down for dinner.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?
Michelangelo, if he would sit still for something like “dinner”…the question is at what point in his life…when he completed the David at 25, or later, during the painting of the Chapel…either way, I think the after-party would be the best part.

If you could have dinner with anyone living, who would it be?
It would be a tie but I think it could work for both at the same time… First, Dan Deacon, an electronic music composer who lives in Baltimore. I’m thinking hardshells, beer and fries. Second, and from the same town, it would be John Waters. Both have an unfiltered and populist approach to their art without boundaries.


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