DC architect Michelle Bove, who creates some of the city’s most breathtaking spaces, ensures her work aligns with a range of community and philanthropic missions.
DesignCase’s work includes spaces like DC restaurant Chloe
Michelle Bove has spent her life surrounded by the art of building. “My father is a carpenter and builder, [which gave] me a front-row seat to seeing things being created and built in my own home. I don’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything other than an architect or engineer,” she says.
While working for a boutique architectural firm for a decade and landing scores of awards, Bove also dedicated dozens of hours a month volunteering to design for the local chapter of Architecture for Humanity. “That was the first time I realized how design can be used to serve the public outside of large civic projects,” she says. An idea was born. When she launched DesignCase (designcasellc.com) several years ago, Bove says her mission was to push clients to think beyond the property line. “We work with real estate developers, government organizations and businesses to identify what and how they will contribute to the communities they’re in, with a unique look at the return on investment for both client and community.” Bove sat down with us to discuss how her work dovetails perfectly with helping communities thrive.
Architect Michelle Bove, founder and principal of DesignCase, which has philanthropy in mind for its projects.
What was your “aha” moment when it came to launching DesignCase? I knew that I wouldn’t be happy just creating another design firm. What really pushed me to go out on my own was a desire to bake in the time I spent on pro bono projects and to work on them in a way that was more [fulfilling] than just putting in a few hours after work. I dreamed of these projects becoming part of my everyday workload. Even though these projects are pro bono, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a project number and fulltime attention like any other.
When did you realize your concept would take flight? I had been reaching out to my network, letting them know what I would be doing. Most folks were encouraging, but I could sense their doubt of it working. Then I [saw] a post by a friend asking if there were any interior designers who could work on a pro bono project for a shower trailer. I immediately got in touch. Just days later, I spoke with the founder of Generosity Global (generosityglobal.org) and kicked off the design work for its shower trailer that has now been serving people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore for three seasons. I’m amazed that something as simple as a shower can be the catalyst to help someone feel human again, give them the confidence they need to find employment and seek additional help for their needs.
What I’ve been really thrilled to see is that not all of the projects we’ve contributed to—all of which have created a profound impact—are solely pro bono endeavors. There are numerous other for-profit visionaries out there who align with our mission to think beyond the property line.
The team at DesignCase seamlessly merged indoor and outdoor spaces at El Cielo.
I love that phrase. How does it manifest itself at DesignCase? Our tag line serves two purposes for me. One, it’s my reminder to remember what DesignCase is founded on. Having it attached to our logo the way it is, it becomes a sort of affirmation for me to continue to work with the mission in mind. It also reminds me to always think about the projects we take on—whether it’s a classic full-fee project or a pro bono project—and think about how each affects its community.
For example, a few years back, I was invited to provide a proposal for a potential high-profile project with an international chef. I was hesitant to accept the opportunity because I wasn’t interested in designing something just to create another high-end restaurant. So, I did some digging into the owner-chef to understand his personal mission. This chef was already thinking beyond the property line by providing funding from his successful restaurants to create a foundation. The foundation funds a program for culinary training that serves 200 former soldiers and ex-guerilla members in his home country of Colombia.Immigrant Food showcases art and culture from the Middle East and South America.
Please tell me about your work with Immigrant Food. In 2018, when I first met the founder and visionary behind Immigrant Food (immigrantfood.com), Peter Schechter, I knew immediately DesignCase would be a great match for working on this mission-based concept. The vision was to celebrate immigrants and educate the public about what immigration really is. It was born at a time when immigration was a very hot topic in DC politics, and the founders, all immigrants themselves, wanted to tell the real story of immigration and unite at the table.
The challenge for the DesignCase team was to celebrate immigration aesthetically, and we did so by layering the space with colors, textures and furniture concepts from around the world. There are tiles that reflect South American style and craft , rugs and fabrics that are from around the globe and a Middle Eastern-style seating platform in the middle of the dining room—[it’s] a location just blocks from the White House. Each piece of furniture, lighting fixture and plant was selected as part of a palette that was to celebrate how cultures from around the world have influenced and made ‘America great… again and again.’
Please tell me about your work at La Cocina VA. La Cocina VA (lacocinava.org) was founded to create opportunities for social and economic change through feeding, educating and empowering. Through the work of culinary and business training, the organization has proven to be a major success in the DMV. In 2018, La Cocina VA started the pursuit for a larger space to house their growing program.
As chance would have it, I ran into its project manager one aft ernoon—a contractor I had worked with years ago. We were catching up, I told him about our mission, and he lit up and said, ‘I have a project I think you would be a great fit for.’ I then learned about the program for the 5,000-square-foot space. The program for their new home would include a training and catering kitchen, classrooms, office space and a cafe.
The result is a beautiful, professional kitchen, providing a real-world experience for students, a sun-drenched classroom, and a warm and inviting office and cafe.
What would you say is your firm’s overall design aesthetic? We don’t subscribe to a single aesthetic. The work that we take on is unique to each project, concept and brand, which can really be seen when projects like Maydan (maydandc.com) and Chloe (restaurantchloe.com) are compared side by side. These projects were designed and opened almost in parallel, but each has its own aesthetic and is successful because it celebrates the vision of each of the ownership teams. [We] listen, ask questions, and listen again. These are not our projects, but our clients’ projects, and we are hired to make their vision come to life.
What’s on the horizon for DesignCase? We continue to work with nonprofits and businesses with a mission. We strive to have at least one pro bono project on the boards at any given time. Currently, construction is [nearly] complete on the Sarvis Café (sarviscafe.org), a culinary training kitchen and cafe in Riverdale, run by the Central Kenilworth Avenue Revitalization CDC. We’ve also kicked off a new design pro bono project for a Baltimore-based natural dye artist studio and educational center, Blue Light Junction (bluelightjunction.com), slated to open in 2022
Photography by: Jennifer Chase Photography