When San Antonio architect Brian Korte, AIA, looks at a piece of wood, he feels exhilarated. “I’d bottle that scent if I could,” he says, describing the experience of cutting into a slab of mesquite or cherry. Perhaps Korte’s passion is persuasive; he has cultivated the kinds of client relationships that thrive on collaboration and engagement, bringing to life thoroughly modern projects infused with a palpable richness. Ten years into his career, a client asked Korte to design the “coolest office in Denver” for Armstrong Oil and Gas. The project was the reinvention of an industrial building that had also once served as a brothel. Sensing the client’s openness to pushing the parameters of the traditional architectural enterprise, Korte convinced him to integrate the furnishing and fixtures with the design of the reclaimed brick, timber, and steel spaces. “When you have the trust of the client, it makes the creative process easier,” Korte says.
The project became a kind of resurrection, a notion taken from mid-century master woodworker George Nakashima, whom Korte regards as a major influence. Nakashima considered re-using materials — be they logs cut from trees or bricks pulled from ageing buildings — to be moral acts of renewal and respect. He also valued integrating designer and producer. This idea fueled Korte over seven months of nights and weekends, as he designed and fabricated 47 pieces of furniture in his San Antonio workshop and then shipped them to Denver on a semitrailer. In the shipments were desks, tables, workstations, and credenzas made of repurposed Douglas fir beams and bent steel, and 12-ft-long conference tables of birch and steel pipe — tables that ride on scaffolding casters. Korte rescued artifacts from the original building to make the furniture, bathroom accessories, hardware — even an art installation. Seeing materials “reborn” was an inspiration that set the course for his practice.
Now a principal of BK.Architect, Korte fosters attention to design detail as an essential aspect of his work; it is the professional space in which he resides most happily. Craft, after all, is the soul of architecture: It is the touch of the hand, the unshakable human quality that adds what Max Levy, FAIA, describes as “charisma” to a project, and it enriches all Korte’s work. A rare hometown project at the SK Ranch near Comfort allowed Korte to experiment with fabrication and collaborate with such local artisans as metalworker “Cactus” Max Patino, in whose shop he spends much of his free time. Over the course of the project, proximity to the shop meant more opportunities for trial and
error and more zeroing in on each project element — a must for creating the exquisitely detailed and elegant ranch house whose design presented a series of puzzles. “This project was so refined it was more about connection and concealment,” says Korte. “We worked on how materials met each other, how to balance the exposed and the eloquent and create delicate connections. These are things everybody notices.”
Korte’s love of craft, his eye for detail, and his passion for woodworking have deep roots. As a result of his dad’s military career, he grew up in a series of houses filled with Danish modernist furniture. As a child, he built hyper-realistic model airplanes under the guidance of his older brothers and watched his dad make cabinets. Korte’s interest and skill deepened at the University of Texas School of Architecture, where he assisted in teaching a furniture-making class. Handed the keys to the wood shop, he spent endless hours exploring ideas, honing his skills, and mastering traditional hand tools and joinery techniques. He learned to approach woodworking with discipline and patience, striving for perfection at every stage of fabrication, based on the certainty that no matter what the budget or size of a project, attention to detail mattered. “The smallest detail reinforces the whole,” Korte says. Seventeen years at Lake|Flato provided ample time for Korte to engage in hands-on work and refine his approach to craft as a means to integrate all aspects of design.
These days, Korte is still exploring product design, playing with acrylic, plywood, and bronze in addition to wood and steel. He is designing a bent acrylic and wood prototype credenza and refining the design for a tasting room, including a mid-century-inspired prototype for steel and reclaimed redwood shelving units at a California winery. Every exploration creates new subsets of potential, the first steps toward realizing some future project. “The process never stops, and my list keeps growing,” he says. This constant, craft-focused ferment — Korte has an emerging interest in leatherwork, as well — is its own form of ongoing creative resurrection, what Nakashima described as taking pride “not only in the act of producing a better product, but in the sheer joy of doing or becoming.”
Canan Yetmen is an Austin-based writer.
Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect.