The Sit Down: Nielsen Studios

January 11, 2018

For our second installment of the Sit Down series we chatted with Timerie Gordon and Christian Nielsen, the husband and wife team behind Nielsen Studios, a local architecture and design firm, in what we learned is the "maker side" of the Nielsen Studios headquarters.

If you have moved swiftly through the frequent long lines at Penny Ice Creamery, sipped a pint at Humble Sea Brewery, or reconnected at a free event in the Secret Garden at Abbott Square you have experienced the end product of Timerie and Christian's design work that helped shape the form and function of the built environment. In the video and full interview below we explore how and why their design work converges with their love of the Santa Cruz community. 

Amanda: Tell me what it is that you do? 

Timerie: We’re a cross-disciplinary design firm. Christian is a licensed architect and I am an industrial designer by training. We both attended Rhode Island School of Design where we learned a very holistic approach to design. In general, our business is about  creative problem solving. Our goal is to help our clients make calculated design decisions to help them reach their goals. This approach ensures success beyond  just a cool looking space or just structural components, but the whole thing together. One of the things that makes us unique is that we do have this maker part to our life, so whenever there is a possibility for us to make something for a project or design or fabricate we get excited about that.

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Amanda: You both have had an interesting journey to get to where you are now. Christian, your dad is an architect, can you tell me about your decision to become an architect as well?  

Christian: My dad is an architect and ever since I can remember that’s what I wanted to do too.  My dad tried to discourage me but it turns out  it was just ingrained in me. Like many other architects, I enjoyed playing with legos and doing hands on types of activities and that’s just what I wanted. I went to college to become an architect but when I graduated I said "maybe, I don’t want to do this". By this time Timerie and I were together (we met early on at the ripe age of 19), so after we graduated from college we moved to New York. 

At that point I decided I wanted to work in the film business. The challenge of breaking into that industry without going to school for it was kind of tricky, but I was able to get some jobs and put it together. In the film industry you spend such long days together in a short amount of time that there is this camaraderie you get with the people you work with. It’s kind of like that for a lot of the projects we do now. You get this group of people that are there for a common cause and this camaraderie happens. For me that’s why I really like to make our projects a collaborative effort where everyone has a say in the end result.

When we moved out to Oakland, I went back to into working with my Dad in Orinda doing moslty residential and developer focused architecture in the East Bay and Palo Alto areas. 

Timerie: At that time we had a few friends who had moved out from Brooklyn with us, and we were visiting each other on weekends and some were here and some were there. Eventually we all sort of settled here in Santa Cruz. We would come here on weekends and to visit my Mom, and we decided “if we are going to live in an expensive City, let’s do it here.” 

Christian: We knew it was time to start our own family and with Timerie’s family here and my family in the Bay Area it seemed perfect. Once we moved to Santa Cruz, I decided to take another break from architecture and I started another business with a friend of mine who had moved West from New York and we did that for a few years. And it just...

Timerie: Architecture just kept pulling you back. 

Christian: Yeah. I guess it’s just this thing deep down inside me where I just can’t do anything but that.

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Amanda: Timerie, let’s talk through your story. You were in Santa Cruz, then you were gone, and now your back. How did that all happen?

Timerie: I did not follow a very conventional college bound path. I went to visit my closest childhood friend at St. Mary’s a few times while I was still in high school and I thought “I probably should figure out a way to get out of Santa Cruz and do something more with my life.” So I went to Cabrillo and I visited the college counselor office where they have all the brochures and I picked out the prettiest ones which were all art schools. I choose one that was portfolio based and decided “ok I’m going to go to California College of Arts and I am going to figure out how to get there.” I decided I needed to find a path. I learned that the California College of Arts and Crafts, now called California College of Art, had a high transfer rate from Diablo Valley College which was right near Saint Mary’s. So, I went there and lived with my best friend. I took art classes, created a portfolio, and that’s where Christian and I met. We both kind of already had our paths, and he was already going to Rhode Island School of Design. 

Amanda: And what was it like leaving Santa Cruz for the first time?


It felt great to be on a path that was my own. I had a complicated childhood; I grew up in Capitola in a small community and felt like I needed to create my own destiny. My Dad died my senior year and I think the high school took pity on me and let me graduate, but I was really not a good student. I was focused on finding a path forward after that. 

Christian and I maintained a long distance relationship while I was going to California College of Arts, which was such an awesome school. Both academically and arts-wise I can’t say enough good things about that school. But, I felt like I wanted to go to the east coast, so I decided if I could get into Rhode Island School of Design I would go. I applied, I got in, and then I packed my bags and moved to Rhode Island. When I got there I thought “I was supposed to be born on the East Coast. This is where I was supposed to be!” I grew into my own person and my own desires without the baggage of what I was supposed to be doing or my family. I was paying for it myself, so I didn’t have to answer to anybody.

I was studying industrial design. I chose that focus through a process of elimination. Architecture was a bit too large scale for me at the time and the way my brain works. Interior design wasn't a fit, not even interior architecture. I didn't know until I was actually in art school that I really enjoy the process of making. It makes sense now because my dad was a contractor and I come from a long line of makers. 
Industrial design in particular at Rhode Island School of Design is very much about making and their program was really focused around problem solving. They would provide you with a problem or a problem statement and we would have to create something to solve that. It was really a great fit for me and I was able to explore all creative aspects.

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"The outside world was all doom and gloom and then you walk up those stairs at Nextspace and everybody's doing something that they were passionate about and they were moving it forward and it was happening. It was just a really exciting time. We were fortunate to be there during that time." — Christian Nielsen

Amanda: You guys were one of the first people to be in NextSpace and that really connected you to different people in the community that you still have relationships with today. Can you describe how you got there?

Christian: In 2008 Jeremy Neuner and Ryan Coonerty started Nextspace, Timerie went over there one day and came back to the studio we were working in and said “I found it. I found the most amazing spot. It’s awesome. It’s like a fraternity, but for businesses. It’s great. There are all kinds of different  businesses in there and they have an open office.”

Timerie: And it was all dot com. It was all tech startups. So everyone was as scared about doing their thing as we were. Even though we had a less risky business, we were all in the same boat of “The economy sucks. We have no idea if this is going to work.” We would go up those stairs everyday and by the time we got to the top of the stairs we were like "ok, we are ready to take on the world." 

Christian: I think everybody was like that. The outside world was all doom and gloom and then you walk up those stairs at Nextspace and everybody's doing something that they were passionate about and they were moving it forward and it was happening. It was just a really exciting time. We were fortunate to be there during that time. It definitely helped us get through and get by. And we met some amazing people that we still have relationships with, that we still work with and get business through and feed business to. It was a really critical time for us.

Amanda: You each had your own businesses for a while and even talked about having a kind of metaphorical line between your offices in NextSpace. How did you start working together?

Timerie: It was sort of calculated. I think what I realized at that time was that we weren't really deliberate about what we were doing in Santa Cruz in terms of creating a business. Christian had gotten licensed but his dad's business was really impacted by the recession. There was no business, so we had to start from the ground and we had to be deliberate about how we were doing it. We started getting more commercial projects because that was only the work there was at that time. People were getting laid off and pursuing their dreams of starting their own businesses. Once our work started to become more commercial, it was work I could contribute to and was interested in, we were like “oh I guess we don’t have to be completely separate.” I think it made sense for our business to really be one and the same.

Christian: We were very fortunate to have relationships with people who were friends or acquaintances or previous clients that were opening up businesses at that time. Penny Ice Creamery and New Street Dental were our first projects in town, and I think for us Penny was the one that kind of put us on the map in Santa Cruz.

Amanda: When did you move from Nextspace into the space where you are now?

Timerie: We outgrew our Nextspace space, which was sort of a happy but sad thing. Friends of ours bought this building and we were really looking for a space where we could have both an office and a studio--the making part-- under one roof. Our friends bought this property and it was a perfect fit for us. 

A lot of the stuff that’s in our studio came from past projects and I can’t part with because they are going to have a use some day. I am a collector. I used to call myself a hoarder but somebody told me the difference is that a hoarder doesn’t want to show people but a collector does want to show off all of their stuff. We have this messy collection part of our space and then we have a more neat and tidy architectural and design office part of our business, and I think that’s really us in a nutshell anyway. 

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"The nature of our business and community-minded priorities of actually doing volunteer work in the community was important sort of right out of the gate. We’ve been lucky enough to have a business in this community that does that everyday. " — Timerie Gordon

Amanda: Who are some of the people you work with in the community and some collaborations you have?  

Timerie: All of the creative collaborations with fabricators and other artists in the community are an important part of doing our job. We collaborate a lot with people here in Harvey West, as well as other areas of Santa Cruz. On the other side of this wall, is Custom Made Neon, which any time I have the opportunity to include neon in a project I will. Michael Wood, who is a blacksmith and owns Vector Metalworks just on the other side of the railroad tracks on Fern Street, we have collaborated on everything from furniture to interior architectural railings and detailing for residential projects to collaborating on this public art piece that were doing in the Secret Garden at Abbott Square. Roy Johnson of Roy's Lighting, out in Watsonville, and I design a lot of lighting fixtures together and if I can talk him into cutting things on his water jet for me, I do that as well. Also out in Watsonville, Jackel Hardwoods has an amazing collection of incredible salvaged wood species. We use a lot of their wood in our projects. We actually have one of their slabs in our office. It’s a fun field trip and a great working relationship. Also, glassblower Chris Johnson of Chris Johnson Glass Studio and I have done a lot of work together in Live Oak. I’m sure there are so many I am not thinking of right now. 

Amanda: What is it like being in this community where there are so many amazing artists to work with?

Timerie: One day I was talking to a client about something we had an idea about and I was able to get in the car, drive over to Chris Johnson Glass Studio, blow glass quickly as a prototype, then as a plan b I went out to Johnson Art Studio and folded some mica and acryclic options over a form. In four hours I was able to stop in three different places and prototyped two different light fixture shades. That’s when I really feel like I’m in my wheelhouse and feel grateful for the community of makers we have relationships with. It is an amazing feeling to  come up with an idea, then figure out how to execute it in the most efficient and creative way possible and  do it without ever leaving Santa Cruz. That is pretty awesome.

Christian: It makes a big difference in terms of the hands on making part. In the studio we can design and draw and model within the computer but it isn't until you actually get your hands in it and on it that you actually see how it will work. And that’s why we need all those people to help make that happen.  

Timerie: I think one of the reasons we decided to move back to Santa Cruz was to live in a place where we could really create community. I moved away from here having not really appreciated living here. The nature of our business and community-minded priorities of actually doing volunteer work in the community was important right out of the gate. We’ve been lucky enough to have a business in this community that does that everyday. 

Amanda: What does that feel like when you’ve completed a project and then you get to visit that space?

Christian: I think it's pretty cool. It’s fun to go in and see those spaces being activated and used. Especially when we’re talking about gathering spaces like restaurants and hospitality projects. It’s fun to see it being actively enlivened by the people. That’s what they’re designed for and it’s fun to see that happen.

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Amanda: Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the City of Santa Cruz and about some of the projects you have done with the City through our Facade Improvement program, Motel Improvement, and other grant programs?

Timerie: A lot of the City programs have been really beneficial to our clients. Sometimes Clients come to us knowing about those programs, and sometimes they don’t. The Nickelodeon, for example, we had worked on some of the interior updating and then a couple years later they wanted to do some of the exterior improvements. Through the Facade Improvement Program they were able to completely change the exterior of that building by maximizing the funds available to them from the program with calculated design decisions.

The City makes it easy and makes it accessible for the client and we are able to maximize the funding and work within the constraints of the program. Another good example is the Sentinel Printers sign project that we recently did. It was a complicated location in terms of signage, but we were able to work with the owner, the sign fabricator, and the City, through the Signage Program, to make a sign that works well for the client.

Amanda: In thinking about your relationship with the City, what is your approach to the permitting side of a project that happens mostly behind the scenes?

Christian: It’s a dance between all the different players: the owner, the contractor, and the Planning and Building department. Everybody has their role and we have spent a lot of time establishing and creating relationships within the City. We still have to go through every required step, but we try to make it as easy as possible. I think recognizing that each player has an essential role to play is important.

Amanda: Can you tell me about a conversation you had early on with Mark Ellis, Chief Building Official, and how it impacted how you view your relationship with the City.

Christian: I was in Mark’s office talking through a particularly tricky project that we had taken on because the previous architect wasn't able to get it through the permitting process. Once we got involved, I was really struggling with one aspect of it, so I went to talk with Mark and that’s when he told me “I’m working as hard as you are to get this approved”. He told me that he viewed our relationship as a team, and that’s when it clicked for me. All of us working on a project are a team and we are all trying to make it happen. It doesn’t benefit the City to make it difficult and to not allow businesses to open in Santa Cruz. There are regulations that need to be followed and so there will always be certain things we need to navigate. I am on the phone with the building department on almost a daily basis just trying to get things figured out or to get approvals for the projects we’re working on.

We are a very routine oriented household and couple, and we wake up and we have a very specific schedule. Daily, we go to the harbor and we go through Arana Gulch, and we watch the sunrise and I think to myself “how could we ever give this up.” — Timerie

Amanda: You have each have had a winding path, from coast to coast and you have ended up in Santa Cruz. Why did you choose Santa Cruz?

Timerie: I think on a lot of levels I get excited about the possibilities that are here and being involved in the positive changes happening here. I also feel like my life in Brooklyn or Oakland, where things were much more stimulating, urban, and sort of exciting, wasn't really the best for me creatively it turns out. When we would come here I would feel like my mind was more clear and I felt more creative, and I feel like that’s what keeps me here. We are a very routine oriented household and couple, and we wake up and we have a very specific schedule. Daily, we go to the harbor and we go through Arana Gulch, and we watch the sunrise and I think to myself “how could we ever give this up".

MORE ABOUT Nielsen Studios:

Nielsen Studios is a team of innovative design thinkers and creative problem solvers; a cross-disciplinary firm spanning two family generations. Using their knowledge and skills as architects, industrial designers, and artists, they apply a problem-solving approach to the built environment to deliver high impact results for their clients. 

Learn more at

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