“What’s really great about Jessamyn and I working together is that we’re sort of two halves of this great intellectual whole. We have each other to help test new ideas, me with the creative direction and design perspective and Jessamyn with her focus on business and growth.”
From their international headquarters in Los Angeles, RIOS is combining disciplines, pushing boundaries and capturing compelling narratives through innovative design. Co-CEOS Jessamyn Davis and Andy Lantz are leading the RIOS team through diverse architectural and design projects including commercial, civic, hospitality, institutional, competition and residential builds.
“I’ve been with RIOS for about 7 years,” Jessamyn says. “Prior to my time here, I spent about a decade in private equity and before that I was a strategy consultant. My experience is on the business, operations and financial side and my core focus as Co-CEO is on strategic growth.” By contrast, Andy has built much of his career at RIOS, starting out as a designer nearly 11 years ago before working his way up to Partner and, eventually, Co-CEO. “It’s pretty amazing, really. I grew up in this office and now I’m shepherding the direction of what’s next for us.”
As they operate at the edge of contemporary design, the pair acknowledges a recent paradigm shift in what we expect from our physical spaces. “Everything is different,” Andy says. “Whenever people talk about the 21st century design and look for what instigated the start of it, we can’t help but reference last two years. They have changed everything that we were comfortable with. Learning from the pandemic and from the Black Lives Matter movement, from a creative perspective, you have to ask how you start to reimagine everything that comes next.” “The last two years have really accelerated changes we were already seeing in the US,” Jessamyn adds. “We have a lot of empty retail spaces, movie theatres, offices and commercial spaces that have to be reused, coupled with a total lack of housing.
“So, how do we reconfigure our urban environments to meet people’s needs and still create opportunities for them to stay connected in a way that’s healthy and exciting, but maybe isn’t specifically programmed around what they were used to before? Can we do that in adaptive way that doesn’t have a horrible carbon footprint? We’re really pushing to green and reuse our existing public spaces very differently.”
One of the key ways that RIOS is doing this is by embracing an inter-disciplinary approach to amplify the impact of their designs. “We were founded as an interdisciplinary firm and we bring that to every single project that we work on,” Jessamyn says. “Every pitch we do is seriously green and focuses a lot on humanising a space to make activated, liveable and experientially rich.” Interdisciplinary collaboration is also a core requirement for a lot of the kinds of clients RIOS takes on, Andy says. “Working with tech companies or with the music industry, you have to build an environment that pulls various creative disciplines together. One of the ways we stand in contrast to other firms is through elements like interior landscaping where we’re planting full-scale trees inside of spaces. A lot of the work that we find most successful is a complete experience which takes not just architects, but also landscape architects, graphics, interior and furniture design, and a whole collaborative team who are willing to pull this together into one cohesive vision.” The key values which tie it all together, they say, are RIOS’ six core design tenets: audacity, originality, attunement, resiliency, inclusivity and, most importantly, joy.
When it comes to the projects that get them excited, Andy says, “the weirder the better. Sometimes you’ll meet a new client who’ll present something unprecedented and arrive with energy around creating the new normal. Those kinds of projects are always really exciting – when the client is willing to take as many risks as we are.” This was recently showcased in RIOS’ Spotify Content Campus project which encompasses three buildings and 115,000 square feet of versatile space which enables users to record, perform, listen and foster interaction between artists and audience in an informal way. “It’s very much a new paradigm of a content-driven facility,” Andy says, “as well as a celebration of an Angeleno perspective on what it means to be a maker or an artist in this city.”
While Andy drives RIOS’ creative potential, Jessamyn is busy strategising about what makes the business valuable and unique. The design world can sometimes be quite insular, she says, but her background in biotech and renewable energy more than prepared her to make the leap. “I didn’t have an architecture or design background before I came here, but it was pretty intuitive for me, coming from a very complex industry like biotech, to jump in and get to know the design world. From a business point-of-view, I find architecture fascinating as a leading indicator for the rest of the economy. You can start to predict, for example, what will happen in the real estate market by what’s happening in the architecture industry. It’s really interesting to watch.”
Neither of the Co-CEOs expected they would land in the roles they’re in now. Andy spent his idyllic early life in Columbus, Ohio inspired by arts and ceramics, but eventually landed in a state college studying anthropology. “I never wanted to be an architect, honestly, but I couldn’t afford to go to arts school. When I went to state school instead I was encouraged to try an architecture class. And when I sadly lost a friend to a car accident, that was really the catalyst which made me dig in and commit. After that, there was no looking back. I spent 24 hours a day in the studio.”
For Jessamyn, the path to RIOS was even less direct. “I grew up in California with divorced parents who had very different ideas about the world. My Dad was an attorney; the child of immigrants who very much instilled in us an immigrant mentality around achievement and education. My Mom was an artist who owned a gallery; she is incredibly creative, a mentor and an inspiration to me. As the product of these two very different environments, I eventually went to business school and I always took creative electives in things like art history, but I never pursued them. I was really committed to getting a good job and supporting myself. Afterward, I lived in that business world for a really long time until I got the point where I was the only woman on my team that wasn’t an assistant. I had two young kids and I was working long hours. I finally had this sort of ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment and told my husband I wanted to go back to architecture school. He thought it was crazy and said that I’d be a hundred years old before I could practice, but a month later I got a call from a recruiter about a role at RIOS and I’ve never looked back.”
Both agree that the best part of the job is nurturing young talent and fostering their team. “I love taking young, hard-working people and elevating them,” Jessamyn says, “getting them in front of clients and watching them succeed.” Andy emphatically agrees. “Watching people grow and change is super infectious. We held an amazing Pride Month lunch yesterday for advocates, allies and people from LGBTQIA+ community, and one of our staff told me a story I’d never heard about a time we went to a client meeting together. They’d assumed I would sort of ‘code-switch’ and become straight-acting business man, Andy. When I walked into that meeting room and I was true to my normal self, it helped them to find the courage to celebrate who they are and never hold back. I had no idea. I nearly cried at the table when I heard that story.”
Their team now is as busy as ever, they say, with a range of recently completed and in-progress projects. Their recent design for the GoodRX Headquarters centres wellbeing amongst a buzzing LA tech workplace, while their Echelon Studios project re-imagines the sprawling, traditional Hollywood film lot over 6 vertical stories. One Beverly Hills features a dynamic, mixed-use development with an incredible 8 acres of gardens. Their competition work continues with a recent submission for the Optical Valley Grand Theatre and Concert Hall in Wuhan, China, and they’ve just closed Superbloom, an immersive and exuberant contribution to Milan’s Design Week.
While a lot of their upcoming projects remain under wraps, Jessamyn says that their key focus is in building reimagined spaces all over the world. “We’re trying to build an understanding of what’s going on in different cultures and in real estate that we see moving in interesting ways in other parts of the world. It’s a chance for us to participate in this international dialogue, particularly as it relates to our landscape practice, resiliency, climate action and urban planning.”
“We also have our heads down continuing to pursue some amazing global competitions,” Andy adds, “and we’re actively growing a hospitality practice and focusing on hospitality in offices. That has been really outstanding because it’s taking all of our skills in single-family residential and marrying them up with our interior architecture. It’s yet another opportunity for us to work in new and profound ways together.”
To learn more and connect with RIOS, visit https://www.rios.com/ and follow them on LinkedIn and Instagram.