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Laguna Beach


Morris Skenderian: 40 years of improving Laguna

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have lived in Laguna Beach for any length of time it is very likely you’ve heard the name Morris Skenderian. Skenderian, one of Laguna’s most well-known and respected architects first came to Laguna Beach in 1968 when he was a 26 year-old architectural neophyte. The renowned architect, William F. Cody, saw something in the young Skenderian and brought him along to work on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs. This is how Skenderian was introduced to what eventually would become his hometown. 

“We were using stained glass that was made by a Laguna Beach stained-glass artist, Joseph Maes,” Skenderian said. “I knew nothing about stained glass and asked if I could help him work on the panels. I spent two weeks here. That was my introduction to Laguna Beach.” 

Morris Skenderian  

Skenderian liked Laguna Beach enough that when his Pasadena firm wanted to open an Orange County office, he raised his hand to move south and get the office started.  “Now I’m 30…  I moved to Laguna because it was the least expensive place I could find,” he remembers. “I found a house in Arch Beach Heights for $29,000. Then the economy went bad and they decided not to open the office. They said, ‘Come back.’ But I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to come back. I’m going to start my own office.’” 

And he did, finding a 300 square foot cottage where he worked on mostly kitchen and bath remodels.  

AYSO helps launch a career

They say talent always rises to the top.  This is undoubtedly true in Skenderian’s case. However, he credits his big break to a very surprising source: The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). 

“By now my son is six, my daughter is five. They’re in the Laguna Beach school system. My son plays AYSO soccer so I volunteer as a coach. (Being around these people) becomes a resource. They ask me to take a look at their houses. I got all these references through AYSO!” explained Skenderian. “It sounds kind of weird when I say it, but it’s true.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Skenderian at work on site at The Ranch at Laguna Beach  

And this highlights another important contributor to his success: Skenderian’s ability to forge and maintain great relationships with his clients.  “One of the things that attracts me to this business is I love the relationships. 90% of my friends are former clients,” he says with satisfaction. After 40 years of working in the same town, suffice it to say, he’s never short on dinner invitations.

“Solution-oriented” design

While some architects have a very consistent aesthetic, Skenderian says he likes to look at design as more “solution-oriented.”  That may be why, after the devastating fire in 1993, Skenderian’s firm designed 25 of the 75 houses built to replace ones that had burned.  

“My office went from three to 13 people.  I gave seminars about how to navigate the insurance claims, how to work with architects,” he said. “My intent was to help people.  The side benefit was that it kept business going.  Once that was over I pared it back down to seven or eight people, which is what I have today.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Skenderian’s design work includes the recent remodel of The Ranch pool area 

Skenderian takes a community-minded approach to his design.  Of course, his clients’ needs are of the utmost importance, but he does not work in a client-only vacuum.  “I have a duty to my clients without sacrificing the quality of life for others around it,” he says.  Right now he has about 30 projects going “in one stage or another.” 

While he says he likes doing both commercial and residential work, talking about his involvement with the Athens Group when they were designing and building Montage Laguna Beach back in 1995 brings a heightened level of enthusiasm to the conversation. 

“They came to me and said, ‘What would you do?’  I said, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of responsibility for me to tell you what to do, but I think if you go with a Greene and Greene, craftsman-style and keep a low profile, people will embrace it,’” he said. “They said, ‘Great! Let’s do it!’  With the way it turned out…that feels really good.”

Very close to his grandkids

However, the thing that seems to give him even more pleasure than bringing spaces to life is spending time with his six grandkids, who live in either Laguna Beach or Newport Beach.  “They’re here (at his office) all the time,” says Skenderian.  He proudly describes the projects two of his grandsons worked on recently.  “When you’re this close you get to be a mentor to your grandkids,” he says. Whether the mentoring fosters more architects in the family seems to be beside the point. He just enjoys spending time with them, teaching them different skills, exposing them to new interests.

Unknowingly forging a career path

Looking back, Skenderian says he had some interests that lent themselves to his future career. He liked to build models, for example. “They had these contests and I won three or four of those and that was encouraging. Then I built a car for a soapbox derby when I was 12 or 13.  I was proud of that. And then in high school I wasn’t a good writer, but I was a good printer so I took a drafting class.”

The pieces were falling into place for Skenderian’s future as an architect, but he still wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.   “I didn’t really know what architects did,” he says.  But then he met a friend who told him he should go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “He told me, ‘You’ll love it!  It’s farm country, a small town’…so I took my portfolio, talked to the Dean and got myself invited.  I started in 1958 and graduated in 1962, which was unheard of. My dad said, ‘You have four years’ so I went through kind of scared,” he says wryly.  

After graduating from Cal Poly, Skenderian secured a job working for an architect.  And, minus the year he spent in Memphis with the Navy (he got drafted), and the few years he spent learning how to build things with the Huntington Harbor Company, Skenderian has been an architect ever since.  And while he may not have planned it, he seems very content with the way things turned out – kind of like living in Laguna.

Committed to improving Laguna

“What brought me here was the sheer physical beauty, the village character and the people.  Back then the freeways weren’t all connected.  My clients were not of wealth. I liked what I saw as I became part of the fabric of the town. I wanted to improve it, and also prevent people from ruining it,” he says.  

And while there are a lot more freeways and a lot more people of wealth than when he arrived, he’s still committed to improving Laguna, one project at a time.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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