Architect to the Stars

Former student David Applebaum
makes it big with a small practice

By J.P. Vanpool


Cuba Gooding, Jr. finally called David Applebaum ’84 out of the blue in March 2001 and said, “NOW I understand the gym,” referring to Applebaum’s design which surpassed even Gooding’s own vision for a space that could function as an in-door gymnasium and also as a dance floor. Applebaum saw potential for even more uses of the space, but never could quite convey it all to Gooding until it was constructed.

Gooding is only the most recent in a long list of high profile clients that Applebaum has made very happy since the mid-1980’s. His home is a cavernous 10,000 square-foot-plus affair in Pacific Palisades that Applebaum has lavished with hundreds of hours of careful work. The roof alone he massaged for two weeks before he got something that worked, “and then everything else began to fall into place.” The landscape architect, when he saw the roof’s transfixing power as one moves around the house, informed Cuba that it would be a heresy not to design a large, flowing driveway that permitted visitors to take in the subtleties of the roof’s silhouette as they arrive. Cuba consented to the expanded landscape design implied by the roof.


“Working with really big names is a purifying experience,” he says. “When you make someone like Frank Sinatra happy, you know that you’re dealing with someone who understands what they want and, if you don’t deliver, they can make your life miserable.”

Stars are normally very sharp people according to Applebaum, maybe not book smart, but often very, very charming.

“I have to keep in mind that they are very good actors when they throw their arm around me and call me the one who’s making them so happy. They do mean it,” he said, “but you have to keep perspective.”

Sometimes the spouses can be another story altogether. In a recent blockbuster action film, “Proof of Life,” Meg Ryan played a borderline country club wife of an executive who gets kidnapped by Colombian terrorists. Applebaum’s story of what brought him closest to leaving L.A. and returning to Texas involved a similar character — the wife, that is, not the terrorists.

Five years ago, his practice was growing admirably, more and more big name clients were settling into homes they’d only dreamt of and which, after construction, exceeded even their dreams under David’s detailed attention. Word had traveled and he was working right at capacity with about 30 employees.

It took a couple of really negative experiences with clients before he decided to intentionally shrink the size of his office, work from home, and be much more selective about his clients.

“Two awful multimillionaires at the same time, or should I say one awful multimillionaire and one multimillionaire’s awful wife who thought she was an interior decorator… made me just stop everything, get rid of all my people, and put my office in my house so I could be near my newborn son,” Applebaum recalled.

Now he generally does much smaller projects that permit him a much greater degree of self-expression.

Recounting the story of that transition reminded him of a talk given his senior year in College Station by Frank Welch, the important residential architect. Applebaum mentioned to then dean, Edward Romieniec, that it was strange that a school as influential as A&M, with all the possible speakers it could invite, would choose to invite someone who did nothing but houses. Romieniec answered back that many, many of the architects in large firms working on large projects envied Welch for being able to work smaller projects and maintain control over them.

Applebaum was later able to have dinner with Welch, who lavished him with time and attention and made him see, for the first time, that a small practice could actually be a powerful vehicle for an architect’s specific voice and style. In hindsight, he says that that was when he first considered making a small firm his own weapon of choice.


David earned a B.E.D. at A&M in 1984, and then moved to L.A. where he began working for the most important residential architect in Southern California. In short order, he began contemplating his Master of Architecture. Dean Romieniec had encouraged him to apply to the very best schools.

“Postmodernism was really popular at the time and all the schools that were considered top ten were just oozing very stylish decisions and not design decisions,” he said. “Harvard and UCLA were the two schools that said, ‘I don’t care how you design it, what style you use, just have a good reason for it.’”

That kind of statement helped the young graduate narrow the field quickly.

The day he visited Harvard, it snowed. The day he visited UCLA, it was, of course sunny. Decisions, decisions. It actually wasn’t quite that simple. The choice transported him back to life in “Hotel Langford” and made him ask what life might be like if you added snow to the Langford experience. He thought to himself, “One of these days, I’m not going to want to work all night. I’ll want to take a break. And with my luck, I’ll be snow-bound.”

So L.A. it was.


Applebaum, not surprisingly had contact with some of the great minds of architecture while studying at UCLA, but he says that it was never as involved, as familial as the life he remembered at Texas A&M.

“At UCLA, every professor has a practice. [So] they’re there about the time class starts, they leave about the time class ends,” the architect recalled. “But at Texas A&M, you’d be there at 10:30 at night and here’d come Rodney Hill, here’d come John Greer, just walking through, just seeing what’s going on. There’d be George Mann, there’d be Ed Romieniec, the same Ed Romieniec who had had to leave earlier that day for a doctor’s appointment. He makes it up by sitting at the desk of every single person that’s there at night… going over really wonderful things for 30 minutes or an hour with each person. I haven’t gotten that anywhere else and haven’t heard of it in any other places.”

With that level of personal attention, Applebaum finds it hard to pick out particular professors who were more influential than others during his undergraduate years.

“There probably was not a single professor that did not have some kind of influence on me.”

He does however say that “TAing” freshman studios during his junior and senior years prolonged his exposure to the basics of the creative decision-making process. To this day, that experience still effects him in the way he approaches each project, asking extremely basic, extremely salient questions, very early in a project. Those question-asking skills come from the influence of professors like Hill and John Fairey.

In the design area, it’s Terry Larsen whose contribution he remembers most.

“He’s one of the best design teachers I ever had. He really introduced, in a very approachable way, architectural theory to me. It wasn’t just pretty facades and pretty pictures, but breaking it down into the elements and to the reasons why and making it, really, so much easier for me to do my work. Terry really helped to generate these reasons why the door would belong here instead of there.”

In terms of intellectual influences, he also mentions Le Corbusier’s chapter on the relationship between modernism and the Romans in his book, “Towards a New Architecture.” The chapter is entitled, “Learning from the Romans” and it is a very concise statement of “The Rules.”

“You cannot be a really good modernist without knowing what the rules are,” Applebaum continued, “because modernism has a lot to do with breaking rules… as much as it has to do with simple form. One cannot truly be a modernist without knowing what the rules are and knowing when to break them and when not to.”

Having a strong grasp of that interplay has helped both his modern work and his traditional work.


Applebaum studied under Romieniec. This is important. Romieniec simultaneously drew out of the young David Applebaum creativity and imparted an understanding of its nature and its interaction with other parts of reality. Part of that had to do with the fact that art did not always need a pragmatic justification. Beauty can exist, in fact should exist, quite independent of quotas and litmus tests.

In that spirit, Applebaum and Bruce Walker, his roommate, constructed a huge letter “Q” as the last day to Q-Drop approached. Then, on midnight following the last day to Q-Drop, they dropped the Q from the top of the architecture building, watching it smash beyond recognition upon impact. Truly art for art’s sake. It’s things like that that make clear the distinction between the College of Architecture and the rest of the University.

“It’s a lot like brainwashing,” says Applebaum. “Langford alters your sleep patterns, it alters your eating habits, you bond with your class as you go through the program. When it’s over with, you’ve definitely been changed.”

A similar story stems from the fact that Romieniec, instead of using standard stationary, used plain white index cards with quarter-rounded corners and a small red square near one corner. He didn’t even have to sign them. If you found one on your desk, you knew who it was from, you just knew.

“The night before we all presented our fourth year final designs,” Applebaum recounted, “everyone had been up all night for weeks — and so proud to say, ‘Oh, I’ve gotten six hours sleep in the last nine days.’ Bruce and I went out into the parking lot to Romieniec’s parking space, the only reserved space in the whole lot, and painted it all white, with little quarter-round corners and a little red square near one of the corners.”

They had done it quickly and in complete secrecy.

The next morning, not letting on that anything unusual had happened, the pair were mounting their presentation boards along with everybody else. George Mann arrived, walked straight across the room to Applebaum and, “he grabs my neck and says, ‘Applebaum! You are the only person I know who would do something as silly as painting a parking space the night before your most important presentation ever! This is the last year, the last design, this is your last, your thesis project! You should be taking this much more seriously and my only comment to you is that I wish that I would have thought of doing something like this myself. If you can do that and have a good project at the same time, my hat is off to you.”


In the five years since Applebaum determined that psychological survival and professional joy lay down the path of a smaller practice, his skills have expanded exponentially.

“I can do ten times what I could do two years ago,” he said. “I’m actually looking forward to getting older because as you get older you just get better at handling yourself. It’s just amazing how much you grow professionally by working on small projects in a small office.”

Of course, another benefit of reducing his staff was that he was able to keep his very best employees, delegate more duties to each of them, and actually develop them professionally. He says that even without a formal architectural education, the individual members of his staff would stand a fine chance of passing the AIA exam if they sat for it, “just because everybody gets exposed to everything. It’s a great learning environment.”


All of this brings us full circle to Applebaum’s own definition of what it is he does. For him, “the role of the architect is first of all to understand the lifestyle of the client and then, based on that, to create a choreography that celebrates that lifestyle. And then create the spaces that reinforce that choreography.”

Lifestyle, as used here by Applebaum is not a political term, but a very intimate one. It refers to the most immediate aspects of the client’s life and the tightness of fit between their life and their house.

“Everybody is different, he said. “Some people, when they wake up, the first thing they do is brush their teeth. Some people have a cup of coffee first. Some people have to take a shower first. Some people want to see their kids first. Some want to meditate or exercise. And that’s just getting out of bed.”

The rest of the day undergoes similar scrutiny when the architect begins to contemplate their lifestyle and, ultimately that day comprises a puzzle to be solved by the architect. Applebaum likens it to the scene in “A Beautiful Mind” in which Russell Crowe goes to the Pentagon to crack millions of lines of secret code as they float before him, endlessly hinting at their solution until the cryptologist can find the key. Once Applebaum has broken the code, lifestyle and home flood into one another, defining space after space.


Applebaum’s terrace patio, or “office,” has a canyon view overlooking the J. Paul Getty Museum and is filled with bougainvilleas and not one, but two gurgling fountains. The fountains can actually be heard over the phone when talking long distance with the architect. A Feng Shui specialist determined the ideal location of one of the fountains. Applebaum is not trained in Feng Shui, but Feng Shui practioners have favorably evaluated many of his designs, as built.

“They say, ‘Yes, this room’s color is correct, the window is in the right place and maybe we could just use a small fountain over here’.”

What makes Applebaum chuckle is that to the best of his knowledge, the point of Feng Shui is to enhance prosperity, “but I don’t think I’ve noticed a really big boost since getting the second fountain. I keep telling my wife that architects almost never become great until after 50. She keeps saying that any day now the world should notice.”

- The End -

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