Laying a New Foundation

Douglas Ewing wants to design every type of home

Many architects build their careers on creating a signature style, but Douglas Ewing, FAIA, has established a reputation for doing just the opposite. His wide scope of work runs the gamut of residential and commercial properties to master planning in his own unique variety of contextual, contemporary and rustic styles. Over the years, the Pasadena-based architect has received countless AIA and national awards for his innovative and sustainable design projects, which include fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s ranch in Colorado. 

The blueprint had already been laid out for Ewing’s future career when he was a child. An avid artist in the sixth grade, his mother suggested he should be an architect because they make lots of money.

“Boy, was she wrong,” he says. “I had it imprinted in my head by my mother at a young age that I should become an architect,” Ewing says. “I was always the most creative student in all of my art classes. After graduating from Monrovia High School in 1962, I stopped by the summer job board at Pasadena City College, where I came across an opening at Smith & Williams Architects. They were the best architecture firm in Southern California.”

While taking architecture classes at PCC, Ewing worked 20 hours a week as an office boy at Smith & Williams, where he began designing projects after less than a year. An important principle he learned while working with Wayne Williams was to always go to a design presentation with all options studied and leave with a positive direction.

“Smith and Williams was a design and master planning firm that worked on a diverse range of project types unlike so many other firms that specialize in a single project type” Ewing says. “When you become a specialist, all of your work starts to look the same, and eventually gets boring. I wanted to design everything houses, different building types, master planning, landscaping, fixtures, and furniture. I’m always looking for unique projects to design.”

After his third year at the firm, Ewing considered entering the University of Southern California to continue studying architecture. Wayne Williams, one of the firm’s founders and Ewing’s mentor, talked him out of it.

“Wayne was a teacher at USC and said that I would only get an hour of instruction with him per week,” Ewing points out. “He said my experience at the firm would be more beneficial working with 25 experienced design professionals instead. It made sense, and I stayed for 10 years. Smith and Williams was my schooling.”

In 1972, Ewing ventured out on his own and opened Ewing Architects in South Pasadena, a full-service firm that specializes in site and master plan design, architectural design, interior design, building renovations and restoration design. Smith and Williams began sending projects to Ewing that were too small for them to take on to help him start. In 1986, Ewing relocated the firm to a pair of 1905 bungalows that he had restored in Pasadena using his staff and Pasadena Community College construction students.

To date, the firm has completed more than 1,000 projects and won multiple American Institute of Architects (AIA) Awards. Ewing and his team have spent more than 20 years designing projects for Universal Studios and on seven sites in four countries. In 2011, he received a fellowship from the AIA Jury of Fellows, which selected him for his achievements and significant contributions to the field of architecture for the design, technology and methodology of heavy timber and log construction for recreational and resort properties.

Local projects designed by Ewing in Pasadena include more than 40 residences; Vroman’s Bookstore; the Boy Scout Service Center; Pasadena Range Rover; and Neighborhood Church, which was renovated in a progressive Pasadena Arts & Craft style. Some of Ewing’s favorite projects include those of a more rustic nature such as The Sleeping Indian Ranch and Ralph Lauren’s Double RL Ranch in Colorado, which was designed to look as though it had evolved over the last hundred years and included an antique rustic bar, guest cabins and a saloon.

Ewing has also designed more than 170 homes throughout his career, including the Glen Oaks Residence—a contemporary hillside property near the Rose Bowl that he lives in with his wife, Maggie. The original home was badly decayed; however, Ewing was able to maintain its unique floor plan during renovation after he purchased it in 2009. He focused on capturing the character of the site, which is situated in a grove of eucalyptus and pine trees cascading down an east-facing slope.

A nature lover, Ewing maximized the home’s indoor and outdoor connection with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer stunning views from every room to Mount San Jacinto. All the structural framing is exposed, which is reflective of Ewing’s unique post-and-beam style. The property has won multiple awards and has been featured on the Dwell on Design International conference home tour.

“My home has nine different species of wood, including black wood,” Ewing says. “It makes the place feel contemporary yet rustic. I like a lot of color so that my projects aren’t just white boxes. All of the wood beams in my house are exposed. A lot of architects cover their structural systems that hold homes up. I’ve developed a following of clients who like I exposed the structures systems.”

After visiting a project site, Ewing spends time driving around to get an overall feel for the area. Important factors in the design process include topography, sustainability, compatibility, the client’s goals, and understanding what is feasible from an economic standpoint.

“I don’t ever want to design something that already exists,” he explains. “I want the project to be unique and different from anything else in the area.”

Ewing embraces challenges and is focused on finding creative solutions. With few flat lots left to build on, he has learned to work with hillsides. In Pasadena, where there are a vast number of oak trees, Ewing has never cut down a single tree for any of his projects.

“You have to be clever and figure out how to snake structures around the site obstacles and work with the site,” he said. “Instead of viewing these things as deterrents, you have to view them as unique challenges and design opportunities. I am designing a property that has 34 oak trees, which we are designing the entire home and entertainment yard around. It is absolutely magical. I believe designing with the natural conditions of a site always allows for the most creative, sensitive and significant architectural solution to almost any project.”