The impetus behind the launch of the Portland, Oregon–based Skylab Design Group is simple: “I truly felt I could go out on my own and have the opportunity of seeing my own projects built,” explains founding architect Jeff Kovel. “I didn’t want to wait around for 30 years to get my start.” Originally from Rye, New York, just outside of New York City, Kovel received his architecture degree from Cornell University and headed west to fulfill a passion for architecture as well as nature. After a stint at a firm in Colorado, followed by a role at Portland’s Architropolis, the then-26-year-old architect set out on his own.

At the time, Kovel did not have any prospective clients. But he most certainly had a plan. He established a real estate development company to create revenue that would, in turn, fund his own architecture firm.

The first parcel of land the architect purchased had been considered unbuildable due to its steep slope. However, Kovel designed and built a spec house on the property in less than 14 months. “I had a lot of experience with hands-on construction,” explains Kovel. “Many of my summer jobs were spent working for a contractor.” Since the completion of the residence in 2001, it has changed hands several times, and each new owner has sought out Kovel to design yet another addition.

Kovel’s next purchase was a 110-year-old building on Alder Street, not far from the Pearl District, a revitalized warehouse area in Portland that attracts crowds with restaurants, art galleries, and loft apartments. The Alder Street project includes two live/work spaces—one for Kovel and his wife, in which he dramatically removed the roof and created a lofted living space; the other for a jewelry designer. Also, at ground-level there is a storefront for a distributor of Vitra designs. While it has taken two years to complete the overhaul of the building, the end result exemplifies Kovel’s design sensibility and entrepreneurial spirit. He notes, “Surrounding buildings are now also being renovated. It’s an exciting time to be in this area.”

Currently, Skylab’s team of seven full-time employees and four interns is involved in a number of residential and commercial projects. On the boards are four custom residences, including the Stilt House—a four-story home overlooking Portland that features prime views of the city and a waterfall running through an atrium in the interior. Commercial projects across the country run the gamut from stylish restaurants and lounges, like Doug Fir, in Portland, to innovative retail and exhibition spaces for corporations including Nike, Mattel, Converse, and ESPN.

Kovel credits his firm’s success to the strong identity each of his projects displays. “Our focus is not on what kind of projects we take on, but how we take them on,” the architect explains. “With each project, we find a meaningful narrative and we develop a vocabulary of images.” Though the projects differ in size and scope, Kovel’s quest for a design that can create a unique place speaks a stylistic language that’s easy to recognize in all his work.

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