The MiND of an Architect | MJ Sagan

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A career in architecture is not for the weak hearted. It is a whirlwind career with a never ending path of schooling and learning so to pursue it, you have to have passion. But for someone like MJ Sagan, Architecture wasn’t a choice. It was a passion that found her. The moment she saw “Fallingwater” as a child, she knew that when she grew up, that there would be no other path for her. And today, as the president and founder of MJ Sagan Architecture, it seems architecture chose her for a reason.

“I didn’t decide on pursuing architecture. It selected me. I never considered anything else.”

With her architectural firm in Princeton, NJ, MJ is able to be selective with her projects and only work with clients who are a good fit on both sides – like the new store design concepts of  retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch. She notes throughout our conversation that without passion, collaboration, and teamwork, she would never be able to do this job.

“Being a small studio, we are able to give a high level of attention and detail to each client. I am personally involved in everything and all of our projects are very exciting!

“We enjoy learning about each new client and their project’s potential, as well as the continued joy of working with former clients for the next generation of their projects.”

MJ Sagan


It is with this mentality that MJ is able to bring beautiful designs and concepts to life. The collaboration and teamwork of the architect/client relationship is what truly makes for a successful design concept.  The strength of thoughtful ‘attention to detail’ combined with the knowledge requirements and expectations of the client create the perfect balancing act that is essential for any well designed project.

Casa Edward | Photo by Nico Marques

“I start with the client, the project requirements, and the site, but then I dig deeper. I am not looking for solutions, but rather I am searching for the opportunities that will lead to solutions at the start of every project. What is the desired outcome? What doesn’t currently work and why? What is the first impression someone should have coming into the space? How does the physical space work with the virtual and emotional aspect of the project? What direction is the site providing? Once you have all the pieces, the design process can begin. No idea or direction is left unexplored, but options get eliminated throughout the process. When you are moving in the right direction, the design just begins to evolve.”

MJ notes the best parts of her job are the client relationships she is able to build, and the creative collaborations she gets to be involved in.

“I enjoy going to work every day. I enjoy the interactions, creativity, and resulting growth from opportunities presented. The challenge is the time I have to devote to the ‘business’ when I would prefer spending time with people (my clients, staff, collaborators) and on design.”

Most designers or architects strive for their work to have purpose – creating a space that evokes a feeling, a reaction, and an awareness. MJ believes there is a potential for magic in any space. It is just a matter of listening to what the space has to offer, creating a synergy and allowing for the space to ultimately design itself. You need to find the opportunities within the store and allow the space to be both the eyes and the mirror of the brand, giving customers a look into the brand’s ethos, while also reflecting back to the consumer, who they aspire to be.

Photos by Anne Ciotola

“You have to listen. Listen to the client and to the site. Make the design a reflection of them, not us. We act as a “mirror” to present them to the world.”

Architecture should be intuitive, allowing for simplicity and for the message of the client or brand to stay pure. This is not always an easy practice for many brands and architects get caught up in the latest trends and technology and the brand POV becomes muddled. MJ notes, “Simple is better, but simple is hard.”

First impressions are key – you only get  one. And if you don’t create a good first impression, it is difficult to build brand loyalty enough for the customer to return. MJ believes that first impressions are everything and the elements that make up a successful retail environment focuses on how the space feels, the relation to people in it and the magic of the surroundings.

Photos by Eric Laignel | Last photo credit: Ellis-Einhorn house by Ricardo Barros

“The shopping experience has evolved and store design must change with it, but it remains a personal experience. What makes someone want to enter a store, spend time there, and leave with a purchase and Want to return? It is not about what other brands or stores have done or current trends (which is a word I have such issues with), but what the client is about.”

But what makes the space work for the brand, and what makes the brand tangible?

“Ideally the store, clothing, website, marketing are woven together and are projecting one image and impression.  If as a designer that has been achieved, you have succeeded.”

For people considering a career in the architectural industry, MJ notes that it is both a difficult but rewarding path. Her advice?

“Follow your passion. Study architecture. If you are meant to be an architect, you will become one. If not, learning to think creatively is something that will be beneficial regardless of what you do in life.”

Photos by Michael Moran

Outside of work, you will find MJ delving into creative pursuits such as painting and sketching. Her sketchbook is something she is never caught without and it  is  no surprise that it is also something  that comes in handy in her professional field as well.

“I balance the attention to detail and reality of architecture with oil painting, sketching, and freeform sculpture. My brush strokes tend to be large and my sketches quick. Like my architecture, I create ‘simple’ pieces that hopefully say a lot with very little.”

MJ adds, “I cannot be without my sketchbook and camera on my phone. I enjoy traveling; trips are pure pleasure whether business or vacation. There is so much to experience and learn from new locations. Recording the ‘emotion’ and the ‘senses’ of the places I visit is helpful and rewarding in so many ways.”

By Brittany Melhado