In This Episode
Ben Schwab, partner and architect at STITCH Design Shop, joins us to discuss the award-winning architectural and interior design firm that started in Winston-Salem. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary in the City of Arts and Innovation with a recent expansion into Greensboro, Ben shares how the business started and expanded with focuses on commercial, adaptive reuse, modern residential, and interior design. Inspired by modernist principles, STITCH’s strong team of architects and designers create through the lens of context and sustainability.
Ditra Miller: Hi everyone. Welcome back to the show. It is my pleasure today to introduce you to Ben Schwab. He is a partner and architect at Stitch Design Shop based right here in Winston-Salem. Good morning, Ben.
Ben Schwab: Good morning, Ditra. Thanks for having me.
Ditra Miller: I’m really excited for people to get to know you a little bit better. We are in the city of arts and innovation and architecture may not be the first thing on the minds of people when they think about that, but I want you to talk to us a little bit about how that ties in and why you chose Winston-Salem to be the home base for Stitch Design Shop. But before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about Ben. If I understand correctly, you’re not originally from Winston-Salem.
Ben Schwab: That is correct. I grew up in the Midwest. I grew up in rural, small town Iowa, there were 2,000 people in my hometown. Great family, great friends. I think culturally it’s a really interesting place too, because there’s a lot of small farms that are all around Iowa. So with that, it definitely is very much about helping your neighbor, being a community, and how you work together.
And that is something that growing up, it’s just how it was, but I have come to appreciate now that I’ve left and when I go back to see that strength and the work that was needed in order to do that.
So that’s definitely something that as I continue to learn more about myself, I figured that was a pretty important part of my upbringing and values that were instilled by my parents and community there.
Ditra Miller: There’s so much to love about Winston-Salem that is congruent to the things that you said, right? The sense of community and working together. Is that what drew you to Winston-Salem?
Ben Schwab: I went to Iowa State University and then went to graduate school in Denver. I met one of my business partners there. So that was part of the journey of ultimately landing here, was meeting Pete Falla. So we were in graduate school together down in Denver. His wife was originally from Greensboro. He’s from West Virginia. So he had landed in Winston-Salem. I think it was about, six, seven years before I came here. Then I didn’t know much about Winston-Salem.
I had seen the Mad House Show on, I think it was on History Channel. I think that was my only reference to Winston-Salem. So I saw that, I’m like, what is going on, this is wild. This is different than where I’m from.
I spent some time here and after a few visits and ended up coming here essentially because of Pete looking at opportunities. So we both worked together here. And then my other partner, Adam Sebastian, grew up in Louisville, went to NC State. Out of the three of us, he is definitely the local representative for Stitch.
We started Stitch in 2013. And landed in Winston-Salem, and at the time, that was my draw, was a personal connection. Didn’t have much of a connection otherwise with Winston. I had always been very fond of North Carolina, just what I understood of it.
Frank Harmon is a famous architect here, based in North Carolina. He’s been involved in the NC State system, definitely a godfather of design in North Carolina and beyond. So that’s how I was familiar with North Carolina. And then after spending a year here, I pretty quickly came to understand it in a lot more depth.
It’s home for me. It’s been home for me for a long time now, but it’s definitely home for me now that I have a four and a half year old, Arlo’s his name, and now with him being born and from North Carolina, I feel like that was the next transition for me to feel comfortable being like, okay, I’m a North Carolinian now.
Ditra Miller: Arlo, I love that name. Well, I’m curious to know growing up in Iowa in a rural community, what was it that developed your love of design and architecture?
Ben Schwab: It was interesting, I think kind of twofold. There’s the architecture piece and then my father purchased a local grocery store with a partner when he was 25. That was something I grew up with, that I knew my father being a part of that. Then he had purchased the store from his partner, maybe five years into that relationship. So it was something that just was ingrained. I don’t know that it was talked a whole lot about growing up, but something that inherently at some point I recognized, this is really important to me.
I want to be a part of something that is mine and in some capacity, but also not wanting that to be an individual effort. The excitement of working with a group of people.
Architecture, my path to that. I went to undergrad for community regional planning, which is a lot of design, looking at it from a neighborhood, looking at it from a city perspective. Some of that is policy, how that affects design and development and then going into architecture.
I was always interested in furniture making, furniture design. I had done those pieces growing up, but didn’t realize that connection. Maybe that’s partly what brought me here to North Carolina.
I think just the idea of making and being a part of a process, it’s really rewarding and there’s a lot of pride in being able to work with folks and collectively creating that vision. And then how that comes together and it never gets old.
It’s incredible when family and friends, they’ll get a text on a weekend or a weekday night. It’s like, “Hey, we were just here at Bailey Park. We were just here at Artivity on the Green. We were having an amazing time and it’s alive.” And, you know, sending pictures and that’s incredibly rewarding and just feels so good and is a big driver.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment or what drew me to architecture. But in that planning background, I was definitely interested in how cities are developed, how they come together, and it felt like architecture was a good pairing to that. I was a land use planner for five years in Colorado prior to going to graduate school.
Ditra Miller: Well, number one, congratulations on 10 years. That’s fantastic. And you talked about the team that you have here and working together, not doing a solo thing. And one thing that was really interesting in the brief that we shared before the podcast, you mentioned that there’s progress in the process and with clarity, creativity, and confidence, through every stage, every project, our process is built to breed progress. How does your team work together with your clients to actually do that?
Ben Schwab: It’s really important for us. There’s a high value in design. Of the projects, how are we able to work with our clients to create a clear vision, provide that clarity of what their needs are?
Often they may come to us with a brief or come to us with an idea of what they want or potentially an issue in terms of space, need for space. Maybe it’s a culture piece that they’re working on. How do we work with them? And then how do we truly understand them? How do we understand their business?
It’s been really important for us to pair that design thinking with a process. So how do we develop a process that there’s clarity? We can really quickly work with them, work with their team to really vet out, to understand what those boundaries are.
There may be in that brief that they provide some needs and some wants, and also some current challenges. So how do we better understand that. We work with them in a number of ways to help provide that clarity. And that’s a way we’ve found for Stitch to be very successful.
We can look at different options. We can look at iterations of possibilities really quickly with a low level of risk. MIt’s something we can work through quickly and we can share ideas. And if they’ve come to us with a specific charge that, you know, I need this much square feet, I want it to fit here. It might look like this.
We provide that option and also look at a couple other options too, along with that side by side. And then through that clarity process, we can provide, we learned some other pieces that are adjacent to what you’ve wanted. This other option over here does what you’ve asked, what you’ve said here, but it also could meet these other priorities as well.
So that progress and process is really important as we think about design plus process. The one plus one equals three. You know, how can we increase that? How do we not make it painful to work with our tech, to work with the designer? That can be really challenging. We continue to learn from our past experiences, current experiences, working with architects, working with the designer.
We are working with the client to figure out how to address their needs and how to best deploy that. And of course there’s budget, there’s a schedule, there’s space needs with that too. In doing that, how do we create a collective vision with them and then that implementation becomes a lot more comfortable.
It’s a place that they’re able to speak into that along every step of the way, and that we don’t show up to a meeting or show up and say, hey, look at what we did. This is great, isn’t it? Don’t you love this? That’s a really uncomfortable place for anybody to be in.
We work in a lot of different areas. A lot of different venues as far as project types. 80% of the work that we do is commercial. So that commercial would be new construction, a lot of adaptive reuse. Bailey South. Linville Team was a really early example of that.
That project, Linville Team, and Coleman took a big chance on us. We were very new at that point in time. Being able to work with them to help develop and clarify their vision and then implement that. And I know from feedback we’ve gotten from them over the years of the importance of that office for them. And that was such a critical project for us too.
Early on, somebody had said to us that the best way to establish your business of who you are and what your values are, is to employ that in the first project or two. We’re putting everything into every project that we work on. But that first year, that first two years is really going to set the stage in terms of how you’re viewed. What opportunities, what possibilities there are.
In Pete’s basement was our first office that we were working from. His daughter would come down and give us coffee. We would sleep on the couch that was right next to the desk.
Then we moved to an office just up on Trade Street. After that, it was Linville Team as they were finishing up the office up above, we were in that office down below. It definitely was a really formative time. Really exciting time. But I think that also helped us realize how important it is to continue to develop those connections and that network.
Our our team now, we’re team of architects, interior designers. We have a robust interior design team. That’s something that originally, our company was founded by three architects. Pete is a licensed interior designer as well, but he leans toward architecture. We realized as we were working on a lot of different projects, working with consultants, that for us to really holistically approach these projects, approach this design, that having interior design internal was incredibly important.
Taylor Ghost is our director of Interior Design. She’s been leading the charge and her and her team has done an incredible job. It’s been really great to see, as you have some ideas and some thoughts of this is what we need, this is a direction, and to see the advancement and the development that’s occurred there over the last few years has been really awesome.
Ditra Miller: Who was Stitches first client?
Ben Schwab: That’s a great question. Stewart Parks with Arden Group was our first client. It was a carwash down in Charlotte, Autobell.
I had reached out to everybody I knew. I was like, hey, we’re starting our company Stitch. This is what we do, let us know if you need any help.
Stewart called on a Saturday. So we ran down there and met with Stewart in his office on a Sunday. We were working with him on some master planning, on some conceptual development for a project down in Charlotte.
Looking back, it’s definitely overused, but there’s a lot of insecurity starting your own firm. And as you do that, and it does feel like a struggle for a while. You do have imposter syndrome and feeling like, wow, how do we make this work.
Ditra Miller: I love that you mentioned that 80% of your client base is commercial, but you do residential as well. Talk a little bit about that.
Ben Schwab: The 20% of our work that we do primarily is modern residential. At Stitch, not everything we design is a modern piece of architecture.
I would say what we are, our philosophy and how we approach design is informed by modernist principles. Thinking about context and thinking about sustainability, of thinking about all the different factors that are impacting a space. So how we look at that, how we deploy that as really informs all of our work.
So Adam Sebastian is one of the three partners at Stitch, with Pete Falla, and myself. Adam had built his own house. It’s called the Hole One Residence, it’s not part of Salem Glen, but there was a little out parcel. He designed a modern house around 2008, somewhere in there. He designed and built his own modern house and really locally established himself as an expert in that.
Adam was involved with NC Modernist, George Smart and his team. Great organization that really supports modern design. They are focused on single family residential. So not only new modern design, but also preserving the history of modern design in North Carolina. North Carolina has the third highest number of modern residential homes in the nation. After, I think it’s New York and then Illinois. Really with NC State because of the powerhouse that it has been in architecture. So many different professors that have really inspired and created a lot of opportunities for modern design.
So that’s always been something that’s been really important to Stitch. Early on Adam’s house was built, and then West Salem Modern has been a project that we worked on. There were two houses that the team collectively worked on to restore that are still there, that are great assets for that neighborhood, and then we built five modern homes there as well. I lived in one, Pete lived in another one. That was a really formative project for us. We learned so much.
Our residential, single family work, I’d say is primarily in the Triad. We probably do anywhere from five to eight single family residences a year.
Ditra Miller: That is awesome. If anyone is listening right now and you’re close to your device, just go to their website at stitchdesignshop.com and take a look at some of the amazing work they’ve done over the years. I’m curious to know what is on the horizon for Stitch.
Ben Schwab: We’re definitely born, and have grown up in Winston-Salem. 10 years in August. Last year we opened an office in Greensboro. That is really increasing our representation in the Triad.
And I would say in the Southeast in general there’s a lot of great work and we’re inspired by our peers. We’re inspired by one another. And now when I’m here just seeing all of the incredible opportunities that are ahead. I think continuing to build our team, develop our team architects, interior designers, thinking of when we started Stitch our core tenant was finding a better way.
Being curious and challenging one another and asking those questions about if there are pinch points or tension, how do we respond.
Ditra Miller: I love that. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years holds.
Again, you guys do great work and you don’t have to look far around you in Winston-Salem to see the footprint you guys have. I want to ask you, because of where we’re located, there must be something you love to do here, especially with Arlo. What’s one of the favorite things that you like to do with Arlo in Winston-Salem?
Ben Schwab: We love Winston-Salem for a lot of different reasons. I think the size has been really nice. It does feel like a small town, but then with it being a mid-size city, you do have access to a lot of other things.
In close proximity, there’s easy access to a lot of different things. And I think of the mountains and the ocean, of course. I think most of us that live here, that is something that keeps us here.
I’m a fly fisherman as well, so that’s something that I’m slowly kind of introducing Arlo to hoping, we’ll see where that goes in the future, but something that is definitely near and dear to me. And then cycling is another thing that I really enjoy.
The three of us can get on our bikes and go ride to Buie’s or go spend some time down in the coal pit behind Bailey Power Plant and he can have a great time.
I think looking at Winston-Salem in comparison to where I grew up and what that looked like. Having access to incredible institutions that are here is a thing that continues to get me really excited. I think collectively the community of Winston-Salem, there’s definitely a recognition of the past and understanding that is important and that it is really important to understand as where we’re heading.
I feel that that’s one of the reasons why we decided to start our business here, so that’s just really exciting is, we look forward. I think a huge reason, a massive reason for the success of Stitch to date has been all of the people that have supported us every step of the way.
Ditra Miller: Wow. I love that. Thank you so much for what you do. Filling in the blanks, creating collaborative opportunities for so many businesses based right here and making Winston-Salem a more beautiful place. And the Triad now that you guys are in Greensboro as well.
For everyone listening, tell them how to get in touch with you.
Ben Schwab: You can find us online, stitchdesignshop.com is our website, and then through there you’ll be able to link in with our emails. We are on Instagram @stitchdesignshop. You’ll find us on LinkedIn as well. We have a monthly newsletter. Thanks for inviting me, Ditra.
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