New architecture firm names are getting out of hand. It’s as if they are trying to sound like Indie bands. Barring that, they often fall back on “Atelier such and such.” One trendy use of atelier has been the “Atelier insert-your-name-here” variation. This has been way overdone. There is also the “Atelier theoretical buzz word” version. Since a name is how you present your firm to the world, it’s worth giving it some serious consideration. It’s more important to be apt and appropriate rather than too creative with names. Save the creativity for your designs. More after the break.
The problem with atelier in an English-dominated context is that it sounds pretentious. French words often do. It’s not the language’s fault. It’s the context. Not only does it sound pretentious, but it is pretentious, literally, because it is a term recently taken up by smaller architecture firms to signify cultural and aesthetic achievements that in many cases have not yet occurred. It thus represents aspirations.
There is nothing wrong with having goals. Goals are important for guiding the development of your practice. However, you don’t want a name that signals you are merely aspiring to be successful by adapting a French word to sound like you are cultured and artistic. Moreover, the origins of the word are much more modest and folksy. It derives from the Old French word, astelier, referring to a carpenter’s workshop or the wood shavings left on the floor. It originally connoted craftsmanship and the making of things of a more everyday sort. In time it acquired meanings associated with artists’ studios—primarily those of struggling artists. It was simply that place where they worked, nothing fancier than that. It was used the same way studio is used in English. I’m going to the studio. It means one thing to say I’m going to the studio in English and something completely different to say, in English again, I’m going to the atelier. First, if you ever said this you would sound like an asshole. So, think twice before using atelier as your firm’s name. Despite the rationalization that it references Le Corbusier, it nevertheless has some negative connotations. You never know how it might be perceived by potential clients. Moreover, you might just get stuck with it forever.
If you insist on using this foreign word, with all its associations, to make your firm sound more exotic, cultured and artistic, you should consider going all out and doing it after the fashion of Atelier Bow-Wow. This is the only good contemporary use of the word as a firm name because it mocks the inherent, unavoidable pretentiousness.
While they are serious architects, the name conveys that they don’t take themselves too seriously and that they are, in fact, against the false posturing and image crafting prevalent in the field. Because of this, I am more likely to believe they are creative and work in a genuine atelier of some sort that is not by name only. The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.