Architect, artist, CEO and family man Lawrence Armstrong
Meet a devout modernist who takes inspiration from the Renaissance
“Italian Renaissance” won’t be the first words that pop to mind when you pull up to the gleaming white home on a hillside in San Clemente where Lawrence – “Larry” – and Sandy Armstrong have lived for 15 years. The precise lines, use of glass and curving walls will feel familiar to anyone acquainted with the German art school aesthetic of Bauhaus or perhaps recall the modernist beauty of architect Richard Meier’s Getty Center. “The white house,” as the guard in this gated community calls it, is undeniably distinct in a neighborhood populated by more conventionally built homes.
Inside those pristine walls, the thoroughly modern use of clean lines, bare surfaces and sense of space continues down to every last detail of the open, airy two-story. But as the architect who designed the house for his wife and two kids, the designer who made much of the furniture within it and the internationally exhibited artist who creates the paintings and sculptures that fill the place – not to mention being the CEO of the architecture firm Ware Malcomb in Irvine – Larry Armstrong-the-modernist seeks to embody a very old idea: Renaissance man.
“I am a big believer in a couple of things,” Armstrong says. “An architect should be a whole-brain person. The term ‘Renaissance’ gets used a lot, probably over-used, but the idea for me is that you are not a left-brain person or a right-brain person; you use your whole brain.”
It’s telling that the most prominent title among the hardbacks lining the sleek bookshelves of the home’s downstairs library is the bestselling self-help book “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day” by Michael J. Gelb. “That book is a really important book for me. I really believe in it,” Armstrong says.
The idea of being a whole-brain person is just one of the concepts the Armstrongs embrace. Add to that an insatiable curiosity, the continual refinement of the senses, recognition of the connectedness of all things, and a commitment to fitness and strength in the body. “So, to me, as you go through your life, you try to aspire to be good at many different things – at least I do,” Armstrong explains.
A study-abroad program in Florence, Italy, set him and Sandy on this path half a lifetime ago when they were students at Kent State University. As a student studying for an architecture degree, Armstrong was of course familiar with the revolution in art and architecture represent by the Italian Renaissance, but living in Italy made the ideas come to life.
“Well, you know, when you’re a middle-class kid from northeast Ohio and you go to Italy, it kind of changes your whole life,” he says with a chuckle. “It was eye-opening. I knew about the history and everything, but to be there, you feel it emotionally.”
The idea that we have to choose between being either an artist or a professional or a businessperson is a false one, he believes. “One influences the other, I always say. The art has really influenced who I am as an architect, and vice versa.”
And in the C-Suite too. “As a CEO running a company I have always held on to the things I am most passionate about, which is design, but I also love understanding how to run a business, and to do that you have to have a great team behind you. Essentially you design a company – I have told people many times that I live to design my company.”
Evidently it works. After advancing through the ranks at Ware Malcomb and becoming a shareholder, Armstrong in 1992 bought the company, which was then viewed as a good commercial architectural firm regional to Southern California. Today, expanded and diversified, the firm has 17 offices across North America and three international offices, employing a team of 300.
Whatever he is designing, be it an international firm or a dining room table, Armstrong follows the maxim that form follows function. “I think first and foremost it has to work, no matter what it is – if it is architecture or a car or a product, it has to work,” he says. “Beyond that, I am a modernist, obviously. I am a big believer in it because I think it is a pure form. It is undecorated; everything you see is functional.”
“We designed the house around sort of how we live,” Armstrong notes. He points to the open-concept living and kitchen space on the first floor. “One of the biggest things while the kids were growing up, in the other homes we lived in we ended up in the family room/kitchen, so we knew this space would be used.”
“Lots of school projects were done there,” Sandy pipes up, pointing to the island made from part of an aircraft carrier, “and presents wrapped, and lunches made – too many to count.”
The home mirrors the people in it: The couple, who have been together since they were teenagers, say they long envisioned designing a home with an elegant, welcoming, public side for entertaining (“This is an awesome house to throw a party in,” says Armstrong. “We can have up to 200 people”) and a luxurious, restful private side in the other wing of the house, where the master suite and extra bedrooms and office are located. The sketch for the wing they imagined together, which Armstrong drew on a napkin while at a cafe in Italy, is framed on a wall in their bedroom.
In almost all the rooms, there is a canyon view and a sense of looking through one room into another. This layered vision is a central concept in all of Armstrong’s work, art or architecture. One view subtly opens to another and another – the result being a sense of depth and sophistication.
“We had so much fun designing this home, we’ve often talked of doing it again,” adds Sandy.
He smiles. “Someday.”
But for now, he has enough on his plate leading Ware Malcomb while keeping up with his ever-growing profile as a painter of abstract expressionism and sculptor.
“The art has taken off since we became empty nesters,” he says, noting that son James is a designer at his firm and daughter Lauren is finishing up a degree in psychology at Pepperdine University. “The kids were always the priority when I wasn’t working. But once they were in college, the concept was: Let’s start ramping up the art so when I am done being a CEO I can concentrate on being an artist full time.”
The only problem? The art ramped up a lot faster than anticipated. William Braemer, director of Art Fusion Galleries in Miami, has called Armstrong’s work nothing short of “magnificent.” The recipient of numerous awards, Armstrong now fields constant bookings throughout the nation and in Europe. “It challenges me to stay balanced,” he says, “which is fine. That’s OK.” Such is life, after all, in the da Vinci mode.