Georgie Kajer has had her own firm since 1989, specializing in residential architecture. In that time, Kajer Architects has handled the minor (re-designing friends’ laundry rooms in the early years), the major (Pasadena Showcase House architect of record, 2003) and everything in between. Georgie graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and went solo after commercial architecture left her cold. For the past five years, she’s worked in tandem with Ivan Oviedo, whose passion for Mediterranean Revival equals her own; their shared love of old houses has made Kajer Architects the go-to firm for anybody contemplating a seamless remodel of a Craftsman, Spanish, Tudor or ’50s post-and-beam.
Stylish and petite, Georgie sports a collection of vintage silver bracelets that jangle on her wrists as she gestures with her hands, grabs a pencil to draw a sketch, or waves her arms at a job site. Her signature is “no signature” – her forte is organizing efficient, beautiful spaces that flow, and her style is based on how the existing house, or the occasional raw piece of land, speaks to her. Georgie helps older homes embrace a new century, connect with the outdoors and accommodate modern ideas about technology and sustainability. She’s been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, Residential Architect, Sunset and House Beautiful, and her work appears in the books The New Bungalow Kitchen and At Home Pasadena. She lives in La Canada with her daughter, Mira, and her husband, Gene Sands. When she’s not watching Mira’s soccer games (and sometimes when she is), she knits. It’s “a smaller form of architecture, making something beautiful from your hands.”
Where does your connection to architecture come from?
I grew up an identical twin, with an engineer father, two miles from Disneyland. We used to build sand-castle models of Disneyland in our backyard. If I hadn’t been an architect, I would have been an industrial designer.
How do you find your collaborators: contractors, landscape architects, etc.?
I really enjoy the collaborative process and find that I work with the same people—and work for the same people—over years and years. There’s a trust level among us all, that we know we are doing wonderful work. I like working with people who are good craftsmen as well as good business people—have a reputation to match. The recession has helped winnow out some of the weaker elements in the business.
How has the recession affected your business?
We are doing lots of small projects. I’ve done something like 18 bathrooms in the last two years, like when I first started. And we’re doing things that are really interesting; I’m using different parts of my brain. We are doing a little garden “summer house” that will have multiple functions, or a new entry stair sequence from the sidewalk to the front door, or a garden fountain that is also a spa. The projects are multi-tasking, and so are we, taking on sometimes wider roles as designers. I’ve worked more intensely with things like sourcing and customizing tile, or designing directly with a welding fabricator. Commodities haven’t changed their prices much—a 2 by 4 is still the same cost as before, but labor is cheaper, and people are expecting, and getting, a better level of service.
I’m also more concerned with keeping business local—ordering from local sources like Mission Tile West, getting custom fixtures from Jason McFarland at Old Pasadena Vintage Lighting, or commissioning wrought iron by Efren Peralta, a welder and forger in Echo Park. Pasadena has so many great resources—we don’t need to go very far.
What do you see in home renovations in the next five years?
People are sort of paralyzed, and the big renovations for style or trend are not as plentiful. Homeowners were looking to make $2 on every $1 they spent on a renovation, and now we’re looking at breaking even after three to five years, so the economic incentive for renovating has vanished for the moment. Instead, clients are doing things like downsizing in place, changing their kids’ rooms or updating bathrooms, or adding an elevator to a two-story house to keep bedrooms accessible for the time they can’t get up the stairs. There’s a lot more interest in energy efficiency, photovoltaic panels, gray water systems, and so forth, which are both green and money-saving. We’ll used recycled pressed wood plywood (MDF) to replicate real wood trim for windows even in a restoration project. When it’s painted, you can’t tell the difference. It’s still about quality of life, but it’s a lot more fundamental.
How do you freshen up an old house while still keeping its character intact?
A traditional look can be tweaked. You can specify granite counters that are honed, with a matte finish that looks like vintage tabletops. You can put in a period-looking light fixture in a more modern, unusual metal finish. You can play with color—paint is cheap!
Mira, your daughter, is going on 10. Would you counsel her to be an architect?
Mira is actually more of a scientist, so she’s likely not going to follow in my footsteps, and I’m kind of glad, because, though there is still a lot of job satisfaction in being an architect, it’s hard to make a living. The reality is, there are very few jobs in architecture these days outside of corporate or municipal work. But people are still having babies, or moving, or changing the structure of their families and lives, and still need help to make their houses work for them. At the end of the day, it’s a very satisfying job. It’s still good work.