Let this sink in: Even after nearly two decades at the helm of one of the country’s most celebrated interior design firms—with high-profile projects like the Ace Hotel and homes that have graced countless shelter magazines—Commune co-founder Roman Alonso doesn’t really think of himself as an interior designer. Maybe it’s no surprise, given his windy path—one that took him from the glamorous world of 1980s magazine publishing to publicity director at Barneys to working closely with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. By the time he and three friends started the Los Angeles–based multidisciplinary firm Commune in the early aughts, Alonso had had several careers too many to settle down and just do one thing.
“Back then I thought there was no way I was going to become an interior designer,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home podcast. “I thought, ‘I’ll have a design company, I’ll do all the things that entails.’ But I never thought I’d be an interior designer, and I still don’t think I am.”
From the start, Commune was an unusual company within the design industry. The idea was to break down the walls between disciplines and take on all kinds of work—graphic design, architecture, branding, interiors—with equal rigor. “It had a little to do with the Bauhaus, this idea of having no hierarchy between the different aspects of design,” he says. “There was never going to be a hierarchy between architecture and graphic design. We would have these things the same amount of time and attention.”
Such a unique approach led to unique projects, and a unique way of working. Commune’s studio was structured without silos and specialization—everyone did a little of everything. After surviving a rough patch caused by the financial crisis, the company’s second big test came from its unorthodox structure. Simply put: Two of the original founders (siblings Pamela and Ramin Shamshiri) wanted to focus on interior design projects; Alonso and partner Steven Johanknecht wanted to keep going with an omnivorous approach. They split the firm in two in 2016 (the Shamshiris formed a new firm, Studio Shamshiri), a process that Alonso says has gone remarkably smoothly.
Ironically, because of the pandemic, at least for now Commune is mostly working on residential design projects. But Alonso is confident the mix will change again and that new challenges will lie ahead. His philosophy, in a nutshell: “Remaining nimble is very important.”
Listen to the episode and check out some takeaways below. If you like what you hear, subscribe to the podcast here. This episode was sponsored by Chairish and Universal Furniture.
Creative freedom isn’t free
Commune’s ethos—letting a kind of loose, unbridled creativity steer the direction of the firm—is a beautiful ideal. But Alonso is under no delusion that the financial side of the business will simply work itself out. Early on, he and his partners made the decision to hire the best business managers and accountants they could afford. “What we want is to have the ability to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, the way we want to do it,” he says. “That costs money. So we invest in the ability to do that—because that’s what’s important.”
A truly collaborative approach
Many designers dread working with an opinionated client. Commune, on the other hand, does its best work when its clients are most involved. Though that client dynamic is not for everyone, Alonso believes a collaborative approach leads to better design solutions. “A lot of people think of collaboration as a branding exercise: ‘How can my brand help yours? We can reach twice the number of people!’ That’s the connection—it’s how to sell something,” he says. “We don’t see it that way. To us, collaboration has to do with lack of ego. The project gets better the more heads and hands that are on it.”
Feels over looks
Alonso’s firm is regularly celebrated on the AD100 and Elle Decor’s A-List, and has won a slew of awards for its design work—but unlike many similarly lauded firms, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what a Commune project looks like. That’s by intention, says Alonso. “After all these years and all these things I’ve done, I’m not interested in speaking to someone on a very superficial level with just visuals. At this point, I’m more interested in how someone feels about what we do than what they think about the way it looks.”
Homepage photo: Steven Johanknecht (left) and Roman Alonso (right) of Commune | Courtesy of Commune