Architect, and Founder of Antonym, Monica Chang chats with our co-founder about her career as an international architect, starting an Architectural Studio in the midst of the pandemic, and the lessons learned along the way.
Monica, you're opening our YÜLIVERSE because I'm super excited to share you with our community. I think we should start by sharing a little about you and your background. I was thinking about how far back we go, and it occurred to me that it's close to 20 years.
Yeah! I'm excited to be here. That's right, we've known each other since college. After college, I moved back to LA because that's where I grew up, so I took an offer at an Architecture firm. I ended up staying there for 14 years, and grew there, working right under the principle and founder. And he was like a mentor to me, so I learned so much and felt like I was really building the company.
Were you primarily doing commercial or residential projects?
It was primarily 99% commercial. And it was overseas! That was another part of my job, I would travel with the lead architect and principle to international locations like Shanghai, or even remote cities like Dandong. So a large part of my job was traveling, and managing projects around the globe.
Most of the commercial projects were mixed-use, high-rise. China was a huge market, and there was a big boom in the mega-malls, we did a ton of those. We also had projects in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, so Asia was a big region.
That's an incredible time to be in Asia! I think back to when we were in school, and remember having lunch at the architecture school. It seemed like the gender ratio was heavily male-dominated, is that true of the industry? How would you describe the culture of the industry for women?
In school, I didn't notice, but I do remember when we'd have wood shop, I'd feel intimidated because it did feel like the guys had more presence, and in the end it was mostly guys in wood shop. In the industry, there definitely is a disparity. Architecture as a profession tends to have long hours. When we were in school, we'd pull all nighters all the time in the studio. And that's the culture in the work place too. You enter as a junior designer at a firm, and you are expected to stay later, pull all-nighters, not leave until your principle leaves.
Statistically, there is a disparity between gender for people entering the profession, and those that stay in it. Entering it's about 45% - 55% women to men, but as you stay in the profession, the numbers totally fall off. By the time you become a licensed architect, which is a really long process that can take around 7-10 years because you have to take all these exams, and logged hours in different skills, the numbers are more 30% to 70% women to men. In that 7-10 span of becoming a licensed architect, women drop out. And I'm sure there are various reasons, but when you look at leadership, the majority of higher-ups in architecture firms are men as well. There just aren't a lot of women to mentor and foster other women to develop and stick through all the way.
Do you feel there is gender bias in design?
I think design ideas themselves are gender neutral. I think it really comes down to the lack of role models to roadmap success or to champion more women being seen and heard. I'm sure you've heard of Zaha Hadid, very famous. But she's also basically the lone-woman at least for my generation. There's also Jeanne Gang. But there just aren't that many. And maybe because of that, the industry does't feel our point of view is as strong.
So you worked your way up at a firm, stayed a really long time. Had wonderful international projects. Tell us about your career trajectory that led to Antonym. I remember you announced the launch of Antonym one day right in the middle of the pandemic, so I didn't see it coming. Tell me about the timing!
My first ever personal project outside of my firm was actually my mom's house in a suburb of LA. That was in 2015-2016. And it was also my first foray into residential. Ever since, I would get inquiries to help out with remodels, conversions, or just figuring out what to do with a new home purchase -- through friends and family first, then through word of mouth. So I'd work on small projects here and there. I never thought I'd quit my job, because I actually enjoyed it. But as my career grew, I realized working overseas was so hard because you lose so much control. A lot of ideas get distilled down to something unrecognizable. There was a project we worked on for 5 years that ended up getting taken over by local state ordinances, and it became something that wasn't the vision at all.
I started becoming disenchanted by the whole process, and I got more excited about the side projects. These were small homes that I felt more connected to. And I had gotten my license in 2018, so I felt more confident and empowered. In 2019, I started seriously considering turning my side hustle into my full time job. I actually spoke to my mentor, my boss about it, and he was supportive. So I began dedicating more hours to my side hustle, and dialing back the hours I spent at my day job. When the pandemic hit, a lot of the firm's projects got put on hold so there wasn't much work at my day job, so that was the moment I was like "alright, all in." And I made it happen!
On her architectural studio, Antonym.I want to continue to push the design. That's why I named my studio, Antonym. I need the other side."
Did you feel like it was the right moment, right time?
It was kismet. It was the right moment. Everyone was working from home, everyone wanted to do something with their home. The inquiries increased, the demand increased, exponentially. California also passed the ADU law so every family residence could build an additional dwelling unit on their lot, and everyone is capitalizing on that to build out more livable space, or an office, or generate extra income. It was perfect timing.
That's what I noticed. Antonym gained traction super fast. And I saw your company featured on design publications like Dwell shortly afterward. How did that feel?
Yeah, that was really exciting. When the pandemic happened, my partner and I decided to move from the city back to my parent's home to help out. But we didn't want to live in the same quarter, so we decided to build out the garage to live there until everything blows over. It was a great creative opportunity to do something for myself. I knew it was going to also serve as Antonym's office, so I wanted to make it really unique to this small company of modest means that was just starting off. So everything was done through creatively repurposing, and reusing things we had, we barely spent any money on it.
And I pitched the story to Dwell because I thought it was interesting and unique, and I knew they loved seeing creative small spaces. When they picked it up, I was excited, and also felt that it was relevant for where people are at. After the Dwell article, I just started getting inquires from all over, so it's been great!
On learning lessons.The lesson that I learned is that I have to be both the workhorse and the show pony.
Looking back with hindsight being 20/20, were there teaching moments? Is there anything you would have done differently? Or if you could speak to pre-launch Monica, is there a piece of advice you'd have for her?
I'm a one-woman show right now. That means I do everything. I am not only in the trenches, I'm also front-facing with clients. Half the time I'm on my computer designing, not brushing my hair, and the other half I'm on calls or delivering decks to clients. There was a moment where it all came to a head. I had a whole day of site visits which is where you talk to contractors, and problem solve anything that comes up. I also had a client meeting with a new client the same day which is basically the interview. And I was actually dressed like I'm at a construction site. As I was driving from the construction site to the meeting, I'm going on Mulholland, going through the mountains, the homes are getting larger, turning into estates, and I'm slowly realizing I'm not dressed for a luxury pitch. And this goes back to being a woman, but we're judged a lot on our presentation, and especially as Asian women, we just tend to look young, and people think we're inexperienced. So I may not have presented myself in the best way that I could.
I didn't get the job. And after that I was so devastated. And the lesson that I learned is that I have to be both the workhorse and the show pony. I need to seriously think about how I'm presenting Antonym as the founder of my own business. So if I could talk to pre-launch Monica, I'd probably say to her, 'don't be afraid to ask for help.' Because I am doing everything, I have my hands in everything, and I need to set up a system where I can focus on what's important. So I am actively trying to grow the Antonym team so that I don't have to do everything.
Well let's put it out into the universe because we never know who might be reading this. Who is the dream hire? Who should hit you up after reading this?
Probably a business side person. I love the design side, and I'd be okay not having to always do the business side. If there's someone who is good at that part, that's probably who I'd want to bring on.
Do you ever get imposter syndrome?
Of course! But the feeling that I get when I do get the respect of the other party is great because then it feels validating that my skill, and intelligence are valued. Especially for Antonym, I'm not the end-all of decision designs, I really value client-input. Without that relationship along the creative process, I actually don't feel inspired in my work. I want the challenge. I want to continue to push the design. So that's why I named the studio, Antonym, because I need the other side.
What does the normal Antonym project look like? What type of clients do you work with?
Right now, Antonym projects are primarily small-scale residential. That can be new construction, from the ground up, or renovation. The type of client I work with is a wide range, so I do have luxury clients, but I also make a point not to exclude clients with more modest budgets because the restrictions often make things more interesting since we have to think outside the box for things to work. A big budget is great, but I actually gravitate toward projects that have challenges, and require good problem solving.
The majority of my projects are in the greater-LA area, but I have some work in Palm Springs, and around the country including a current project in North Carolina.
I feel like LA is so diverse, and there is so much to work with: do you think it gives you the most interesting projects?
Yes. I feel really lucky, we have so much. We have the beach, we can go to Big Bear, Palm Springs is only 2 hours away, there's just so much context to bounce off of, and so much to work with. Also, just the diversity of the residents is so different, and everyone's needs are so different!
Let's speak things into existence, what are some goals you hope to achieve with Antonym in the next 2 to 5 years?
Goals are to grow the team. By growing the team, it'll allow us to foray into other typologies, so not just residential. I would love to design a store-front, a shop, a restaurant. So team, and then typology, ideally.
Finally, what would be your dream project?
Dream project would be somewhere out in Joshua Tree. A community/meditation center would be awesome. It would be a space open to anyone to come and contribute however they want from artist studios to urban farming, and meditation center. I don't know what that would be called, nor the typology, but it would be the dream space.
Where can people follow you?
They can check out my site at https://antonym.us/, and follow us @antonym.us
Photos by: Madeline Tolle
Interviewed by: Eddie for YÜLI