The Indicator: Atelier Atelier

Le Corbusier’s Apartment-atelier (1931-1934) on 24 rue Nungesser-et-Coli, Paris

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.

Le Corbusier, Atelier Ozenfant (1922-1923)

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.

Le Corbusier, Atelier Ozenfant (1922-1923) interior

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.

Amédée Ozenfant, Albert Jeanneret and Le Corbusier at atelier Jeanneret-Perret, 1919

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.


, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in 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.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Atelier Atelier" 24 Feb 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 01 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=114663>

9 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    NB I attended a lecture several years ago and learned that “Atelier Bow Wow” is a Franco-English translation from the Japanese, which has a completely different transliteration of a dog’s bark. This extra linguistic layer makes the name something more than just hiply ironic.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    It should be of no suprise. Architects have an strangely high opinion of themselves and their role in society. Many see themselves as the new hip thing (like an indie-band), and the others choose atelier to make themselves believe they are serious architects/artists. Sure, these names will lose their bite very soon- if they havent already, but i dont see the issue apart from the fact that they all come out looking like w*nkers.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    interesting, but not completely correct!
    atelier more accurately translates to workshop in english, especially in the context of the article, while studio is the same in french as in english. which brings me to the second point: the modern use of atelier can sound pretentious depending on its context, i agree, but! english is in fact partly formed from french (going back to the french occupation of the tenth century), hence the language is full of words + terms of french + latin origin. futhermore here is philologic evidence of the difference, at least in understanding, of ‘american english.’
    so the opinion is interesting but i think an american is evidently more uncomfortable with these linguistic references than other english speakers from other cultures.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      yeah…how did you guess?

      I was a little rough, my apologies.
      I’m just fed up with the marketing/branding b.s.
      being viewed as or more important than content.
      Maybe I’m just envious of the marketing people
      making more money than most architects …in an architecture firm!!

  4. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Maybe ‘atelier’ only sounds pretentious if you’re an English speaking American. Whereas the better architecture in the world tends to be done by those who are not.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    this from someone who calls himself The Indicator?
    I think you should just be happy the days of randomly punctuated firm names is behind us.

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