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Architect Barbara Bestor on How Listening Inspires Her Creative Life

Barbara Bestor has designed spaces for rock stars and underprivileged music students alike. Here’s how music and listening weaves throughout her life at home and in the office.

For an artist known for her work designing physical spaces, Barbara Bestor certainly spends a lot of time thinking about something that’s invisible: sound.

For the award-winning architect, sound isn’t just a critical element in the projects taken on by her team at Bestor Architecture in Los Angeles. Although, to be sure, the sonic details have undoubtedly been a key consideration in designing spaces like the corporate headquarters for Nasty Gal and Beats by Dr. Dre, or more recently the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, a not-for-profit music school cofounded by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary.

For Bestor, sound is something that weaves naturally throughout her life. Whether it’s BBC radio in the morning, a focus-friendly playlist at work, or a more eclectic mix of music and movies at home with her family—often with different sounds filling different rooms—Bestor is always listening. This ever-flowing soundtrack, evolving through different moods and tempos not unlike daily life itself, can help fuel creative inspiration on a new project, enable much-needed downtime, or simply hang unnoticed in the background of a busy afternoon at the office.

We recently visited Bestor at her home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, as well as the nearby headquarters of Bestor Architecture, to learn more about her daily listening routines and how that soundtrack stretches across hours, rooms, media, and genres to help fill in some of the colourful details of her life.

Can you describe the soundtrack of your daily life?
I feel like the sound is part of the atmosphere in any given space. At work, in particular, there are a lot of ways to go. As we come up with playlists for the office, they really vary a lot, depending on what’s going on that week. I personally like music from Maui and West Africa. If we have people coming over to the office that we don’t know, that’s a beautiful and meditative sound, something that kind of calms everything down. Whereas, if we’re working late on deadlines, we’re usually putting on some more high-energy music.

When you’re listening at home, how does the sound change from room to room or from morning to night? 
It does change. We have a pretty big open plan for most of our living room, and then the kitchen and dining room are all kind of open. So that’s kind of primed for sound.  Within that, we have a roll-down screen projector set up for movies, which has its own 5.1 surround sound system.

Last night I had music on outside. Then my older daughter and her friends were watching a movie in the living room on the screen. And my husband was reading in our bedroom with another soundtrack going. I love that different zones can have their own kind of sound going on. That’s typical on the weekend. A lot of times on the weekend, we have people over with smaller kids and go swimming with music going through all the main spaces.

I listen to the BBC news a lot. My husband and I sort of trade off. He went into a deep dive on that song “MacArthur Park,” from the 60s. It was originally done by Richard Harris. All summer, we just somehow spent a bunch of time listening to various variations of “MacArthur Park.”

You can actually move sound around. You can have sound emanate from unexpected places. It’s kind of an exciting tool.

How about at work?  What’s the interaction between listening and creativity or productivity for your team?
We do all kinds of different things, so there’s sort of different types of atmospheres that you want for different activities. For some people, it’s about staying really focused. Some people want as little sound as possible while they’re doing that. But a lot of people want that kind of energy level set. It’s just a kind of electricity in the air.

If I’m just myself in my office Googling ideas for something, I prefer something, you know, like in the Nick Drake department or something that’s kind of nice and fills my background and my air with like sunniness, or something like that. If I’m really angry about something, I’ll probably listen to Rage Against the Machine. Maybe not in the office. It’ll be in the car.

Sometimes I work on my own on weekends when it’s simply easier to get creative stuff done. I have some playlists. I saw Anderson .Paak play recently and I’ve been playing him a lot on my own.

It seems like every office has a different approach to managing the Sonos queue. How does your team listen together? 
There’s always something playing. I don’t do well with quiet.

There are a couple of informally-nominated DJs. My individual office has its own [Sonos One] speaker, so I can kind of change everything in there. But we have two big zones. It’s like two warehouses. Each one has its own zone, so there are often two different soundtracks playing in the one room versus the other room. The personality and musical preferences of one person might be different from another person’s. It’s kind of nice because there’s plenty of space and time for everybody to play whatever they want to play.

I like that the Sonos system is so flexible. It works at a bigger scale, across the whole office, or just as smaller personal listening units. And, generally, my clients like that flexibility, too. Plus, it’s wireless. So, obviously, as an architect, that’s great because you’re not paying a trillion dollars to wire the whole thing. I mean, that’s really huge, just from an electrician’s point of view.

At Sonos, we’re interested in this idea of sonic architecture—thinking about sound as another element of design, almost like light or physical materials. How does sound come into play when you’re planning projects at work? 
What I do as an architect is to design an atmosphere as a three-dimensional space. Sound is like the invisible fourth dimension of that kind of environment. You see it so much in the retail space. But I think when it comes to peoples’ homes, it’s really important. My mother, for instance, always has classical music on the radio. So I kind of immediately feel a kind of calm, childhood thing if I start listening to Mozart.

Are there some examples of some projects where sound is a more significant part of your process than others? 
I’ve worked with a lot of musicians and done all kinds of recording studios and music offices. And I feel like the part of LA that I inhabit is very much about music and the people who make it, and I guess to some extent the bigger entertainment business around it.

Architecture is more how you feel in space and is very much informed by all of your senses. The haptics and the sound and the smell are part of it. You can actually move sound around. You can have sound emanate from unexpected places. It’s kind of an exciting tool.

What I do as an architect is to design an atmosphere as a three-dimensional space. Sound is like the invisible fourth dimension of that kind of environment.

How has that ability to mould sound in a given space evolved over the course of your career?
You can do so much more than you could before when you had to hardwire everything. [When we redesign old buildings], we can allow the original structure to exist, but mostly through stuff like sound and lighting we can add all these layers of technical capability and programmability that we didn’t have before. So, it also makes it much more comfortable as an environment; less purely structural. Actually more habitable.

We recently announced our collaboration with HAY on a set of limited edition colour speakers. I’m curious to know how you think about the interaction between colour and sound in the home. 
I think colour is part of atmospheric experience and is wildly important. A darker, neutral colour is more peaceful, providing a water-like meditative quality in a space. By contrast, light and shiny rooms and objects are more buzzy and create a sense of activity.

These new [HAY Sonos One] speakers read more like decorative items—like a ceramic vase or a cast bronze sculpture. The matte colour takes them out of the realm of functionalist product design and into a new “in between” space for objects [in the home]. It’s very artful.

What are you listening to lately for inspiration?
Well, I kind of like the new Nikki Minaj record. I was listening to something and they were playing, of all things, Soundgarden, which I never liked in the ’90s, but now I think it sounds interesting. I wasn’t into this headbanger-ish ’90s stuff when it was popular. I’m more like a hip-hop person. So, now I’m kind of listening to this dark sonic stuff lately, which is kind of weird. Even for me.