Architect Barbara Bestor on the Role of Sound in Design and Living

Barbara Bestor has designed spaces for rock stars and young music students alike. For the award-winning architect, sound is a vital element not just in the rooms she blueprints, but in the ones she inhabits day-to-day. “I don’t do well with quiet,” she says.

For an artist known for her work in visual design, Barbara Bestor spends a lot of time focused on something that’s invisible: sound.

For the acclaimed architect, sound is more than just an element in her team’s projects at Bestor Architecture in Los Angeles. Sure, the sonic details have undoubtedly been a key part of designing spaces like the headquarters for Nasty Gal or Beats By Dre, or more recently, the nonprofit Silverlake Conservatory of Music. For Bestor, sound is something that weaves itself throughout her life as well.

Whether it’s BBC radio in the morning, a focus-friendly playlist at work, or a more varied mix of music and movies at home with her family, Bestor is always listening. This ever-flowing, fluctuating soundtrack can offer creative inspiration on a new project, enable much-needed downtime, or simply hang unnoticed in the background of a busy afternoon.

We recently visited Bestor at her home and nearby office in Silver Lake, Los Angeles to learn more about her listening routines and how that eclectic soundtrack stretches across rooms, formats, and genres to help color the details of her daily life.

Can you describe the soundtrack of your daily life?
I feel like the sound is part of the atmosphere in any given space. As we come up with playlists for the office, they really vary a lot, depending on what’s going on that week. I personally like music from Maui and West Africa. If we have people coming over to the office that we don’t know, that’s a beautiful and meditative sound, something that kind of calms everything down. Whereas, if we’re working late on deadlines, we’re usually putting on some more high-energy music.

When you’re listening at home, does it change from room to room or from morning to night?
It does change. We have a pretty big open plan for most of our living room, and then the kitchen and dining room are all kind of open. So that’s kind of primed for sound. Within that we have a roll-down screen projector set up for movies, which has its own 5.1 surround sound system.

Last night I had music on outside. Then my older daughter and her friends were watching a movie in the living room. My husband was reading in our bedroom with another soundtrack going. I love that different rooms can have their own kind of sound going on. That’s typical on the weekend.

I listen to the BBC news a lot. My husband and I sort of trade off. He went on to deep dive on that song “MacArthur Park,” which is this crazy song from the 60s. It was originally done by Richard Harris. All summer we just somehow spent a bunch of time listening to various variations of “MacArthur Park”.

You can actually move sound around. You can have sound emanate from unexpected places. It’s kind of an exciting tool.

How about at work?  What’s the interaction between listening and creativity or productivity for your team?
There are different types of atmospheres that you want for different activities. For some people it’s about staying really focused. Some people want as little sound as possible while they’re working. But a lot of people want that kind of energy level set. It’s just a kind of electricity in the air.

If I’m just myself in my office Googling ideas for something, I prefer something, you know, like Nick Drake–something that’s kind of nice and fills the background and my air with like sunniness. If I’m really angry about something, I’ll probably listen to Rage Against the Machine. Maybe not in the office. It’ll be in the car.

Sometimes I work on my own on weekends when it’s just easier to get creative stuff done. I have some playlists. I saw Anderson .Paak play recently and I’ve been playing him a lot.

It seems like every office has a different approach to managing the Sonos queue. How does your team handle the group listening dynamics?
There’s always something playing. I don’t do well with quiet.

There are a couple of informally nominated DJs. My individual office has its own Sonos One, so I can change everything in there. The office is like two warehouses. Each one has its own zone, so there’s often two different soundtracks playing in the one room versus the other. The DJ personality of one might be different than the other. It’s kind of nice because there’s plenty of space and time for everybody to play whatever they want to play.

I like that it’s flexible. It works at a bigger scale, across the whole office, or just as smaller personal units. Generally my clients like that flexibility too. Plus, it’s wireless. So obviously as an architect that’s great because you’re not paying a trillion dollars to wire the whole thing. That’s really huge, just from an electrician’s point of view.

We’re interested in this idea of sonic architecture—thinking about sound as another element of design, like light or physical materials. How does sound come into play when you’re planning projects at work?
What I do as an architect is to design an atmosphere as a three-dimensional space. Sound is like the invisible fourth dimension of that kind of environment. You see it so much in the retail space. But I think when it comes to peoples’ homes, it’s really important. My mother, for instance, always has classical music on the radio. So I kind of immediately feel a kind of calm childhood thing if I start listening to Mozart.

Are there any projects where sound was a more significant part of your creative process than it is in others?
I’ve worked with a lot of musicians and done all kinds of recording studios and music offices. The part of L.A. that I inhabit is very much about music and the people who make it, and to some extent the bigger entertainment business around it.

Architecture is more how you feel in space and is very much informed by all of your senses. The haptics and the sound and the smell are part of it. You can actually move sound around. You can have sound emanate from unexpected places. It’s kind of an exciting tool.

What I do as an architect is to design an atmosphere as a three-dimensional space. Sound is like the invisible fourth dimension of that kind of environment.

How has that ability to mold sound in a given space evolved over the course of your career?
You can do so much more than you could before when you had to hardwire everything. [When we redesign old buildings], we can allow the original structure to exist, but mostly through stuff like sound and lighting we can add all these layers of technical capability and programmability that it didn’t have before. So it makes it much more comfortable as an environment, less purely sculptural.

We recently announced our collaboration with HAY on a set of limited edition color speakers. I’m curious to know how you think about the interaction between color and sound in the home.
I think color is part of atmospheric experience and it’s wildly important. A darker neutral color is more peaceful, providing a water-like meditative quality in a space. By contrast, light and shiny rooms and objects are more buzzy and create a sense of activation.

These new [HAY Sonos One] speakers read more like decorative items—like a ceramic vase or a cast bronze sculpture. The matte color takes them out of the realm of functionalist product design and into a new “in between” space for witless objects. It’s very artful.

What are you listening to lately for inspiration?
I kind of like the new Nikki Minaj record. I was [recently] listening to, of all things, Soundgarden, which I never liked in the 90s, but now I think it sounds interesting. I wasn’t into this headbanger-ish 90s stuff when it was popular. I’m more like a hip-hop person. So now I’m kind of listening to this dark sonic stuff lately, which is kind of weird. Even for me.

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