As a kid growing up in Iowa, Sean Wagner was sure about one thing: He was going to be an architect. “When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, it wasn’t an astronaut or a fireman; I knew that I wanted to be an architect,” Wagner remembers. “I was always interested in buildings and how they get put together. It’s been like that my entire life.”
In 2011, Wagner founded his own firm, NewStudio Architecture, in White Bear Lake. “I had an idea, kind of a concept, of starting a new architecture firm that was about design and nature and client relationships,” Wagner remembers. “I wanted to try something that was a little bit different from what I’d been doing for the past 15 years.” After more than a decade as the director of sustainable design for a Minneapolis firm, Wagner struck out on his own—and NewStudio Architecture was born.
Wagner and his team at NewStudio—which includes his wife and director of operations Melissa Martyr—adore the White Bear community. “The primary reason [for starting our firm here] was the lake itself, and the recreational potential that gave us,” Wagner explains. “Melissa and I are very outdoorsy and activity-oriented, but certainly [the lake] was a recruiting tool for the kind of staff we wanted to attract: young, creative folks who are environmentally conscious and have an interest in the outdoors.”
They also discovered that they were part of a long history of entrepreneurialism in White Bear Lake, Wagner says. “There are lots of people who set up shop on the shores of White Bear Lake, who had a good idea and built something from scratch and turned out to be successful; we feel that there’s some kind of energy here that you can’t put your finger on.”
Martyr adds, “You can have an office building anywhere, but we’ve chosen to become part of a warm, history-rich community.”
The Space NewStudio’s office space reflects Wagner’s design principles, just as clients’ spaces do. “Everything is very open. Our spaces are simple and honest,” he says. “The materials are straightforward: natural wood, reclaimed material or found objects that we’ve repurposed.” And with the lake just fifty feet from the front door, nature is never far away. “Being here on the lake and coming here every morning, watching the sunrise, seeing how the seasons change and how our buildings respond to that, exploring that relationship with art and nature—[it’s all] kind of a central, driving force in our work.”
As one of the first LEED-accredited architects in Minnesota (that’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Wagner has a true passion for environmentally friendly designs. “I spent a long time working in sustainability, and trying to educate clients about how to be environmentally responsible. That was hard work for the 15 years I was doing it. What’s wonderful is that the marketplace has changed; no longer do we as design professionals have to educate our clients about the need to be environmentally responsible.”
NewStudio’s clients are using all kind of renewable energy strategies, from solar panels to NASA-developed hydrogen fuel cells. The team is currently working on a distribution warehouse that will be almost completely powered by a rooftop photovoltaic (solar panel) array. “It will be one of the top two or three largest rooftop photovoltaic installations in the U.S.,” says Wagner.”
So what kinds of designs does NewStudio focus on? A pretty wide variety, says Wagner, from specialized residential projects to retail stores to big warehouses. “Architects design things for people to live and work in, and if we’re fortunate enough we get to design things for people to play in,” Wagner says.
But that’s only part of the equation. “We have a real sincere interest in developing very personal and long-term relationship with clients,” Wagner explains.
One of Wagner’s longest and most fruitful professional relationships has been with Urban Outfitters, based in Pennsylvania. The company owns and operates Urban Outfitters clothing stores across North America, along with several other brands, including Anthropologie, Free People and Terrain.
NewStudio has worked with Urban Outfitters’ internal design team on retail spaces for their various brands all over the country—and it’s a match made in heaven. “[Sean and his team] understand how to sensitively approach the uniqueness of a building,” says Dave Ziel, Urban Outfitters’ chief development officer. “They’re willing to work with us on sensible design and creativity in a partnership. They’re all about the relationship.”
Adam Jarvi, an architect at NewStudio and longtime colleague of Sean Wagner’s, loves seeing projects like Urban Outfitters stores come to fruition. “We call it ‘adaptive reuse,’” he says. “It’s taking new buildings that were intended for one purpose—often historic, industrial buildings—and breathing new life into them with a new use.
Ultimately, Wagner and his NewStudio team create pleasant, useful spaces for their clients—many of whom end up as true friends. “Every aspect of our life we do in the service of other people,” says Wagner. “You hope to do that in such a way that brings pleasure and hopefully some peace.”