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Building Design: An Interview With Frances Anderton Of KCRW

Building Design An Interview With Frances Anderton Of KCRW 1

If Los Angeles had a town crier for design and architecture, her name could be Frances Anderton. The writer and radio personality has dedicated her life to both worlds and has ushered in a culture of speaking to what physically surrounds us in Los Angeles. Her show DnA on KCRW has recently boomed into a more active, “multi-platform” space for discussion about what she describes as “who and what matters in our designed world.”

When we meet in the basement studios of KCRW, Frances sits in a recording studio with her back facing an operating board. She has a glass of water and a small bag of mixed nuts with her, two items undoubtedly invaluable for the always working journalist. She wears a comfortable petrol blue cardigan, a worn, early Star Trek shirt, and a block necklace made by her young daughter that spells her name: the outfit is a fitting representation of her intellectual and accessible point of view.

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This passion for sharing architecture and design has always been a part of her identity. In fact, she was raised in these subjects: her late father was a passionate fan of the disciplines and he dedicated his life to learning about them. “My father was an incredibly influential person in my life and actually he introduced me to architecture,” Frances says with a charming English accent. “He was very much a maverick who had an informal education in art and architecture and design. He was a low scale property developer who bought and sold houses he liked. He had fun redesigning them and then he sold them and moved on. That was the environment I grew up in: an interest in design is completely in my DNA.”

She went on to study architecture, initially planning to design and make buildings herself. “I realized that I didn’t have the attributes of an architect, though–but I loved it,” she explains. “I also loved graphic design and I became the person who organized social events and made the posters and that kind of thing; and I was a bicycle messenger during summer vacations, so I was active in cycle and urban issues way before they became fashionable. Anyway, one thing lead to another and, almost immediately after architecture school, I was hired by an English magazine called The Architectural Review. This was in 1987 and, on my first assignment, I was sent to LA.”

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“It was kind of serendipitous,” she says of her first visit to the city. “I was coming from London and I had only been in America once. Even though from childhood I knew I wanted to move to America because I lived in a city called Bath, which is a very touristy city so I met a lot of Americans. Europeans tend to criticize Americans for being loud and overly enthusiastic and in your face. They are–and I liked all that! I was very keen on Americans and fascinated by America as a child. I always had my heart set on moving here–but I thought it would be New York.”

“I was sent here to do a story on what was then considered the new faces in architecture, the interesting and experimental and oddball architecture that was coming from Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne and Mike Rotondi and Eric Owen Moss and Hodgetts and Fung in the 1980s. This younger generation was only just getting going and we were doing a special issue on it for The Architectural Review.”

Frances had little knowledge of the city and came strictly for work. She read Reyner Banham and Raymond Chandler and Bret Easton Ellis on her flight in to help put her in the mindset of the Angeleno. “The moment I touched down and saw the LAX Theme building and palm trees and a blue sky, I thought, ‘Woah: this is fabulous,’” she says.

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Aside from some driving mishaps, having never needed to drive in London (“I didn’t even know how to turn left on a big multi-lane LA road!”), she found the city to be quite “weird”–but liked it much more than she ever could have imagined. “Something clicked within the space of a few days and I thought this place was amazing. It was liberating. I’d believed myself to be an urbanite and a lover of London and New York City. LA really took me by surprise, this place where you have single-family houses and trees taller than the houses and a big open sky and an appalling consumption of space and resources–but it is still incredibly seductive!

“This is the America that I now want to move to–not the America that I thought I wanted to move to,” she says. Upon returning to London, Frances focused on getting back to the West coast. She eventually was able to trade jobs with a friend of a friend to work for LA Architect, a small publication serving the Los Angeles design community.

Frances arrived in Los Angeles a few months before the Rodney King riots, which proved galvanizing for many architects who had previously been very preoccupied with formal experimentation. “The riots had thrown up all these economic and urban issues and we–the architecture community—felt we had what it took to rebuild the city. What became evident was that it would be the developers and politicians who rebuilt LA. The architects were not the deciders: they were at the mercy of those writing the checks.”

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Because of the riots, she felt compelled to start looking at these issues and shifted her gaze away from architecture and design to participating in rebuilding the city she loved. “A show called Which Way L.A.? started here–KCRW–in reaction to the riots and Warren (Olney, the host) discussed the exact same issues that we in the architecture community were discussing but in a way that was so eye opening and inclusive of different interest groups. There was such a variety of voices! I felt the ephemeral medium of radio was able to have a more effective dialogue than I could in this tight, circumscribed community. Basically I had a Eureka moment and decided I had to work on Which Way LA.”

“I started volunteering at KCRW and started freelance writing to bring in an income. Eventually, I became a producer on the show–but I always kept up design writing. Once I got to the station, I found myself being pulled in the opposite direction: we talked about all these policy and political issues but we never addressed the physical dimensions to these problems. Suddenly I saw things from the other side.”

“It was a problem to be in this very narrow sphere of architects but it was equally troubling to be in this world of policy making and economy, ethnic issues and this and that crisis–and you never heard the physical environment being a part of the conversation.”

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“Within my little place in the station, I kept pushing to do more coverage of architecture,” she explains. “Then LA came out of the riots and the economy started to pick up and the freeways got rebuilt (following the 1994 earthquake) and then Disney Concert Hall and The Getty were built: LA was having a building boom! One thing led to another and our former GM–Ruth Seymour–decided to start this show.”

The initial incarnation of DnA was a once a month show. It was seen to have a limited audience and put Frances in the position of being both a producer in addition to on-air talent. She broke down her time into “four-fifths coverage of foreign affairs and news and one-fifth architecture.”

Very recently, the scope of what she is doing on and for KCRW expanded: DnA is now a weekly show that is bringing in many design voices in Los Angeles to discuss the subjects. “It became evident to Jennifer–who now manages the station–that DnA has an audience. KCRW’s audience includes a lot of designers and sophisticated and curious people who are interested in music and food and gadgets and products and the built environment. So about two months ago–I began focusing exclusively on DnA.”

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March 18 was the kickoff of the new DnA, which happened with an party and Q and A with Elon Musk at Tesla. Two days later her father—a huge design influence for Frances—suddenly passed away and she had to return to England. This did not deter her from letting the new DnA run wild. “One of the concepts for an expanded DnA was to grow a stable of DJs–Design Journalists–who would go out and report on LA designers. I had floated the idea with a few young talents. Once I got the terrible phone call that my father had died I knew they’d have to start right away; after all we had just sent out a press release saying DnA would podcast weekly. So between getting the news and boarding the plane that evening, I got in touch with Alissa Walker and Maura Lucking and told them they’d have to go and do the interviews. In the span of those two weeks away I was able to test the potential of bringing in other voices.”

Frances wants DnA to become a home to reporters who are just as passionate about the subject as she is, and one of her goals is to build coverage of designers and makers in Los Angeles . “Just like we have a stable of DJs in our music department who are pushing indie bands, I want to do the same thing with DnA but for designers. We’re ratcheting up our coverage, with the understanding that–just like indie bands—it’s a challenge for indie designers to get their voices heard when they are competing with the great morass of stuff. How do you cut through? We will support our backyard, as it were.”

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“It is exciting,” she notes with a smile. “Everything I’ve done has evolved in an organic way but has now really crystallized: I’ve learned so much about radio and so much about interviews and so much about journalism from working here and with Warren. But at the end of the day my real passion lies in design. The policy stuff is extremely interesting but so full of conflict and endlessly recycled arguments. Design has its challenges but there is something inherently optimistic about design and designers.”

Frances has Los Angeles to thank for a lot of her revelations in design and architecture. The city that she became obsessed with years ago is still fascinating to her, even as it goes through some profound changes. She says she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world. “Like many others who move here, I find Los Angeles to be permeable and open. Growing up in England–and New York too–you have a very strong sense of the hierarchy and you’re never allowed to forget that and who’s on top. There’s a strong sense of where you came from and that has a bearing what you do next.”

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“What I completely love about LA is that clean slate feeling, that reinvention feeling: you can just embark on projects and be unencumbered by where you grew up and what school you went to, and so forth. I find that immensely liberating.”

“It’s corny but I do find the climate liberating too,” she adds with a chuckle. “Being in England, you don’t know from one minute to the next what the weather is going to be like. The weather was stressful — because you never know if you have the right set of clothes on for the next hour. Is it going to be sunny? Is it going to shower? Will it be windy? You don’t have to worry about that here.”

“And when I lived in London, it seemed people were always thinking about their next vacation to get away from the weather. Here, you don’t get preoccupied with thinking about where you can escape to,” she says. “You are already in a resort town. So you can just focus.”

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She brings up fellow English person David Hockney, an artist who was shaped by Southern California as he helped to shape its image (but now lives again in England). “For Hockney, everything from his sexuality to his art seems to have been completely liberated by coming to Los Angeles.”

If there are downsides Frances sees to the Angeleno mindset one is that there is sometimes a lack of criticism. This bright and sunny place can sometimes be too positive. “Everybody is ready with a really sharp, penetrating criticism in England. Of course that can be negative and can kill an idea before it’s even brought up. In LA, on the other hand, people are more of the, ‘Yeah! Do it!’ philosophy and while that can be wonderful, it can sometimes turn into, ‘Yeah, do that really stupid idea!’ The pluses really outweigh the negatives, though.”

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Frances doesn’t foresee herself going anywhere. Los Angeles is her home, and DnA is her baby. It’s my spiritual home,” she says. “This is where I’ve found myself and have been myself, most fully realized here.”

As for DnA, “I’ve done the show for ten years and it was just little me and I don’t want it to be just little me anymore.” “I want it to be a community of smart people sharing design in different ways. I want different voices. Maybe because I’m a mother, I don’t know, but I like the idea of growing the next generation. I’ve always been attracted to teaching so maybe that is something in me now that just wants to bring in more people.”

For more on Frances, be sure to follow her on Twitter. You can catch DnA on KCRW Tuesdays at 2:30PM: get more information on the show here. You can also check out the DnA blog here, too.

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