Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Sebastian Schmaling and Brian Johnsen describe their studio’s work as being “informed by a reading of site and terrain.” But don’t call it a philosophy. “We’ve always been suspicious of grandiose philosophical statements that can’t be backed up by an equally grandiose body of work,” says Schmaling. And grandiose the duo’s work is not. Since founding their four-person practice, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2003, Johnsen, 39, and Schmaling, 40, have made a name for themselves by designing buildings of near-monastic simplicity. Proportion, material, and setting reign supreme in the twosome’s work, rather than showmanship or formal flamboyance. The result is a collection of buildings with a sense of place and an unfussy precision.

The two met in 1995, while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After eight years of working together for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based firm, they decided to become business partners at their own firm. “We wanted more control over the design process,” Johnsen explains, “and to focus our attention on a set of architectural issues that we were interested in exploring more seriously.” Those issues include how materials age and how built work relates and responds to its context. In their work, the “context” is generally a suburban one: The firm’s Ferrous House, which rethinks the classic ranch, and its linear OS House both ask the old residential typology to do new tricks, creating open and transparent spaces inside and more direct connections to the outdoors.

Much of the studio’s work has thus far consisted of private residences and other small-scale projects. “Architectural significance transcends particular programs and building types. We’ve never felt that there’s a particular correlation between the scale and the quality of a project,” Schmaling says. Indeed, for a 300-square-foot musician’s studio, the pair packed a lot of program into a tight plan. The tiny, rectilinear structure has a soundproof studio, below-grade storage, a covered porch, and a casing of weathered-steel panels that wouldn’t look out of place on a much larger building for a cultural institution. “We think an architecture based on restraint is more appropriate now than ever,” Schmaling says.

In the years to come, Schmaling and Johnsen will finish a series of projects, such as sustainable infill housing in Kansas City, Missouri, and a residence that takes its stepped form from Wisconsin’s hilly Blue Mounds region. They also hope to increase the time they spend teaching and lecturing. Both have been adjunct professors at their alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and visiting professors at the University of Toronto and the University of Oklahoma. “We started our office without a grand business plan or any far-fetched goals, except to create relevant architecture and survive while doing so,” Johnsen says. “We hope to keep working on projects that let us experiment, without partaking in the breathless competition for instant architectural gratification.”


Johnsen Schmaling Architects

LOCATION: Milwaukee, Wisconsin



PRINCIPALS: Sebastian Schmaling; Brian Johnsen

EDUCATION: Schmaling – Harvard GSD, MAUD, 2002, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wisconsin, M.Arch., 1996. Johnsen – University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Wisconsin, M. Arch., 1997, and BSAS, 1994

WORK HISTORY: Schmaling – Vetter Denk, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1996–2000, 2002–03. Johnsen – Vetter Denk, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1997–2002

KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS:  Studio for a Composer, Spring Prairie, Wi., 2011; OS House, Racine, Wi., 2010; Layton Pavilion, Greenfield, Wi., 2010; Downtown Bar, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2008; Ferrous House, East Troy, Wi., 2008; The Blatz, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2007; Camouflage House, Green Lake, Wi., 2007

KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Topo House, Blue Mounds, Wi., 2012; Hilton Cafeteria, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2012; Cube House, Delafield, Wi., 2012; Mountain Retreat, Big Sky, Mt., 2013; Q House, Merton, Wi., 2013