DAAM is an acronym for ‘Designers, Architects, Artists and Makers’, and it’s a name that aptly summarises this cross-disciplinary, energetic young studio’s stance and deeply collaborative and hands-on culture.

‘DAAM (pronounced “dam”) was a purposefully bold choice,’ explains the studio’s Chicago- based founder, Elyse Agnello. ‘It serves to focus attention on our work process and product rather than our authorship, and its playful irreverence reflects our design aspirations.’

DAAM: creating ‘new ways for people to live, learn and be together’

elyse agnello and alex shelly of DAAM architecture studio
Elyse Agnello and Alex Shelly of DAAM, photographed by Hugo Yu at The Robey in Chicago

Agnello set up DAAM in 2016 and was soon joined by current co-director Alex Shelly. Together they lead a small team of two to six people, pursuing ‘the type of work that valourises neighborhoods, breathes new life into abandoned structures, inspires a better future, and creates new ways for people to live, learn and be together’. Seeing themselves as a ‘people-centric’ practice, they place conversation and function at the heart of their design process – form comes after.

This is also reflected in their project, client and collaborator choices. ‘We’ve prided ourselves in not “having a type” when it comes to the projects that we take on. We’ve sought out and created projects where problems are celebrated, craftsmanship is embraced, and good design is truly valued,’ Agnello says. That said, he does express a soft spot for ‘dynamic gathering spaces’, such as the studio’s Lyte Lounge (the conversion of a nursery into a community centre for-risk and homeless youth on Chicago’s South Side) and Guild Row (a former industrial site transformed into a new membership club around creativity and civic engagement). 

Guild Row courtyard in Chicago
Guild Row

However, their breakthrough project is without a doubt Shell House, a small – just 1,000 sq ft – home in the Catskill Mountains. The project is a delicate renovation of a retreat originally designed in 1996 by architect Seymour Rutkin (with consultation from the Monolithic Dome Institute), and its refined approach and extreme attention to detail resulted in many awards and publications. More housing work, including entry-market initiatives, such as their Starter Home project, a concept they have been incubating for several years, are currently in the works. 

The duo’s multidisciplinary attitude and energetic nature means that their work often takes them beyond ‘traditional’ designing and building. They both often teach, while Agnello is also co-founder of Guild Row, as well the design principal of Platform Managers, a real estate development and venture management firm. All their ‘extracurricular’ activities help them grow and cross-pollinate their daily design practice. 

Guild Row interior in Chicago
Guild Row

As to what they feel is missing from today’s architecture world? ‘Globally, we always need more young open-minded practitioners that come from diversified backgrounds that are able to blend their architectural expertise and other life experience,’ says Agnello. ‘Locally, it’s an exciting time to lead a small practice in Chicago. The City has an appreciation for design, and with the ongoing development of civic initiatives geared at addressing local issues of poverty and racism, paired with the Chicago Architecture Biennial spotlighting the role of architecture and design at the intersection of critical issues such as health, sustainability, equity, and racial justice, local opportunity abounds.

‘Small creative firms generally need better means of seizing these opportunities though. We need to develop better tools and processes to productively insert ourselves in these conversations and projects.’ §

shell house interior
Shell House
kitchen interior of Shell House by DAAM
Shell House
design for LYTE gym by DAAM
Lyte Gym
starter home concept by DAAM

Starter home concept