Five Under 40: Architect Steev Wilson

Colorado Homes & Lifestyles' Class of 2017

The first installment of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles’ Five Under 40 awards in 2014 was a giant success, and the tradition has only gotten stronger with each subsequent year. This year, the mass and magnitude of talent that arrived in Colorado Homes & Lifestyles’ inbox was both exciting and inspiring. 

We called on the 2016 Five Under 40 award winners to help us with the difficult task of selecting five of the finest from a pack of worthy contenders. 

The class of 2017 is shining bright and upping our design quotient inside, outside, and all around the state. 

Here we get to know one of the award recipients, architect Steev Wilson, founder of Forum Phi Architecture in Aspen, and see some examples of his work.

Portrait: Jennifer Olson
"The process of creation has always intrigued me, and architecture is such an interesting way to do that." — Steev Wilson. 

Aspen architect Steev Wilson prides himself on thinking outside the box.

“Each time we run into an obstacle,” he says, “we get to turn it around: ‘Is this a problem, or is this an opportunity?’ In this business, we get all these challenging cir-cumstances that really stretch our creativity and push us to work together to come up with solutions, which is where the magic happens. I get to keep learning every day. I think a lot of people let boundaries contain them; we like to think around corners and try to figure out innovative solutions. We want to be different; we’re OK that we’re a bit weird. We bring a unique perspective to our work, and I think that’s important.”

Wilson, who grew up in Brewster, New York, graduated with an architecture degree from Syracuse University, where he walked onto the ski team—and that led him to Colorado. “Ski racing gave me my introduction to the Mountain West. I thought, ‘This is the life. I need to move out here.’ I painted every town in Colorado with résumés, searching for a design job close to a gondola.” After working for another architect in Aspen for a couple of years, he founded Forum Phi at age 25. Now, the iconoclastic firm has 25 employees, split between offices in Aspen and Basalt, with a handful of people working in Denver, New York, Boston and New Jersey. And Wilson is proud to have created a firm that goes its own way.

In this redo of a 1910 Aspen home, the historic exterior was preserved while the interior was modernized to accommodate the client’s love of entertaining. [Photo: Michael Brando]

BOAT BUILDING 101: “When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they say, ‘astronaut’ or ‘firefighter.’ I would have said ‘architect.’ One summer during college, a buddy and I decided that rather than wasting our money and time going out to bars or movies, we would instead spend our evenings designing and building a sailboat in my garage, because that was more fulfilling. The process of creation has always intrigued me, and architecture is such an interesting way to do that.”

GOOD AT BEING BROKE: “After working for another architect in Aspen, finishing out my license hours, I thought, I’m still young; I’m still good at being broke, and this is the time in my life when I have the least responsibility. What a great time to take on the risk of trying to start my own business—I was too young to know that I shouldn’t.”

HOW FORUM PHI GOT ITS NAME: “When I started the business, I knew I didn’t want my name on the door; I didn’t want the company to be about ego or serving one person. So I came up with Forum Phi: Phi is the Greek symbol for the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Ratio, the proportion of the human vision, the spiral of the galaxy. It’s always been an essential proportion of beauty in architecture and nature, so to me it is the essence of architecture. And Forum is an open place of discussion and collaboration. So Forum Phi: an open place to discuss the essence of architecture.”

The open floor plan of this Basalt home takes advantage of magnificent views of Mount Sopris. [Photo: Gibeon Photography]

AROUND THE WATER COOLER: “I always wanted to create an open studio atmosphere—the kind of thing you’d associated with the Silicon Valley tech culture where you’re in an office, all jamming out to music. If you get stuck, you can turn around and go, ‘Hey, I need help figuring this out.’ It’s open. It’s loud. The ideas rub together and the friction creates heat. At a lot of studios, you see everyone headphoned up, tapping away. But
[I prefer] the team environment. It’s that water cooler conversation where these interesting collaborative ideas are born.”

DUELING MARKERS: “I like an engaged client, somebody who cares and really wants to make something interesting. So I like to put the project manager, the draftsmen and the client in a room together. We put the 3-D model up on the projector and use a whiteboard to sketch over it. It’s involved, engaging and messy. Getting the client up there at the whiteboard—I’ve got a marker, she’s got a marker, and we’re fleshing it out. The client is emotionally committed to the design, and at the end, she says, ‘Yes! Thank you! This was fun, and we did this together as a team—we made this really cool thing.’”

Forum Phi’s careful code review and strategic design allowed for a 4,000-square-foot expansion of a luxurious Aspen home near the Ajax gondola that had once been deemed unexpandable. [Photo: David O. Marlow]

STEEV ON PHONICS: “In grade school, I was excited that the English language might work like math, logically adding together sounds to create words. I was disappointed when the teacher asked if I spelled my name with a v or ph. I responded, ‘P + h will never add up to v, not even on its best day.’ Independent minded as I have always been, I began spelling my name how I thought it should be phonetically—S-T-E-E-V—and it has stuck. I think it describes me as not your usual Steve.”

BIGGEST HONOR: “When Outside magazine named our company the No. 1 best place to work last year, that was a great honor. In the same year we won Aspen’s Business of the Year award, so getting both a culture award and a business award in the same year was validation that we might be getting it right.”


Categories: Stylemakers, TTT In the News