A Space Odyssey

Ramsay Gourd says architecture is in his DNA

by Keith Morrill

ramsay_gourd-2014Ramsay Gourd is the principal of Ramsay Gourd Architects, with offices in Manchester and Winooski. He has recently launched Ramsay Gourd Home, a second enterprise to sell his designs for fabrics, wall coverings, and made-to-order furniture.

Ramsay Gourd is no geneticist, yet he talks fervently of DNA and tinkering with blueprints. As principal at Ramsay Gourd Architects in Manchester, with a small office in Burlington, Gourd’s passion lies not in the building blocks of life, but those of building. “Once you understand what the DNA [of a project] is, that is what gives a project its unity of character and cohesiveness.”

Gourd seems to draw genetic parallels as much as he draws roof lines, albeit with good reason. DNA and design may be inseparable for Gourd, who comes from a long line of designers. “It’s sort of in the blood,” concedes Gourd.

Whether derived from nature or nurture, Gourd and family do appear to have undeniable artistic flair. His great-grandfather James Ben Ali Haggin made his name as a society portrait painter and designer of stage sets for early 20th-century Broadway tycoon Flo Ziegfeld.

Gourd grew up in Wilton, Conn., hearing such maxims as, “There’s no such thing as bad taste: It’s a question of whether somebody’s taste agrees with yours,” from his grandmother, and learning to draw linear perspective from his mother’s textbooks. Both women were designers.

Interest in architecture, however, was unique to Gourd. He attended a five-year architecture program at Cornell University from which he graduated in 1988. Being a young, tech-savvy graduate freshly trained in the latest architectural programs made him a commodity in the job market. He found employment in Boston with Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects, where he used computers to design buildings with repetitive elements such as laboratories.

Over the next few years, Gourd worked as a draftsman and architect in a number of Boston firms, including at the offices of Moshe Safdie and Graham Gund Architects.

While his employers seemed thrilled with his tech skills, Gourd did not share their enthusiasm. “I got pigeonholed,” he says. “It set me on a career path that was in the wrong trajectory.” He can easily pinpoint the source of his discontent in designing on computers. “It lacked the craft, the nuance of actually making things with your hands, and the serendipity of line.”

His disillusionment motivated him to look for other options and would ultimately lead him out of Boston and out of architecture. In 1994, pursuing a longtime fascination with the hospitality industry, Gourd and his wife, Mary Jo, purchased the Battenkill Inn, an ailing establishment in the town of Sunderland. “It was one of those things where I figured, ‘Why not try it?’”

Within a few years they made the inn profitable, but despite the success, some things refused to stay behind in Boston. It didn’t take area residents long to learn about Gourd’s former profession, and they started coming to him with projects, asking his opinion. When Gourd started taking on architectural projects of his own, he had an epiphany. “I realized I am an architect in my blood, like I’m right-handed,” he says. “There are probably 12-step programs for people like me. I just can’t help it.”

Rather than fight nature, and despite turning a profit with the Battenkill Inn, Gourd sold the establishment in the spring of 1996 and started Ramsay Gourd Architects in a Greek Revival building on Main Street in Manchester.

The firm has since changed locales several times, moving to a Dorset schoolhouse in 1999, then across from the Equinox Resort & Spa in 2003, and finally to its location on Highland Avenue in Manchester.

The current space occupies a renovated movie theater with a grand interior dressed in baby blue and white decor, with desks where there were once floor seats, and conference areas and offices in the mezzanine. The bathroom, too, is something of a marvel.

“We always trick out the bathroom wherever we go,” says Gourd. “That’s the first place that people go to be alone and make decisions about our designs.”

The office seems sparsely staffed considering its size. Gourd is the principal; Patrick King, senior associate, runs the firm’s satellite office that has operated on Mill Street in Burlington since 2007; and Kevin Gecha is an associate.

Gourd says the staff is intentionally kept slim. “I’m often very hesitant to bring on staff because of the nature of the business. We could be slammed today, and, for strictly personal reasons, clients decide to put [a project] on ice. That kind of pulls the rug out from us.

“You have to be nimble in this business to be able to adjust. And of course the larger you are the less nimble you are.”

The firm bears two heads: Ramsay Gourd Architects and Ramsay Gourd Home. “They’re intertwined,” he explains, “because they are both about architecture design and lifestyle.”

The first is the firm, which focuses on residential and hospitality design, and includes services ranging from master planning, drafting, and interior design to what Gourd calls project identity.

Residential design, he says, is an intimate process, and successful projects build lasting relationships with clients.

“Our job is to paint a portrait of our client that is identifiably them. I don’t want somebody to walk in the house and say, ‘Wow! This is such a Ramsay Gourd house.’ I want them to walk into a house and say, ‘Wow! This is so you.’ I want it to be about the client.”

Because of the intimate nature of the work, it tends to forge lasting relationships that Gourd says aligns with his goals. “I don’t just want to be somebody’s architect. I want to be their architect for life.” To him this means more than building design; the firm also designs elements such as furniture and signage, even crafting clients’ moving cards or Christmas cards.

Client Holly Jacobstein speaks of her experiences with the firm. She had purchased a property and had already hired Gourd. The plans had been drawn up for the new house when shifting events required Jacobstein to look at different options. Instead, she and her family purchased another home designed by Gourd’s firm that had just come on the market.

She retained the firm’s services to renovate the house. Sticking with Gourd seemed like the obvious choice, but not only because he was the original architect. “He has some great ideas,” says Jacobstein. “We didn’t want the house to seem old and tired.”

The second head of the business, Ramsay Gourd Home, grew from a 25-year fascination with licensing, intellectual property, and product design. Over the years Gourd had dabbled with product design, producing ideas for china patterns, but they never amounted to anything. Things changed when the economy tanked and the architecture business slowed. Gourd tosses out a favorite quote about the whole situation, “Every problem is an opportunity in drag.”

Gourd used the lull in business to advance his product design. He started coming into the office every morning before the phones started ringing, and spent time designing products, with a focus on fabrics and patterns. At last, things gelled, and he officially launched Ramsay Gourd Home in July 2013.

The store exists as an online retailer that deals mostly to designers looking for home fabrics, wall coverings, and made-to-order furniture. This is only a beginning, says Gourd — Ramsay Gourd Home is merely in its infancy.

Gourd lives in Manchester, not far from where his two sons attend school, one at Burr and Burton Academy, and one at the Long Trail School. Gourd splits his time between the Manchester residence and another in Winooski.

He has been working to develop and grow the Ramsay Gourd Home into a lifestyle brand available to the general public, with the intent of eventually offering a wider range of designs and products. “Really everything for the home and beyond,” says Gourd. “Quality design shouldn’t be expensive.”

It’s in his DNA. •