“It started with just me and a house.”
That’s all Asheley St. John had when she started her own architecture firm, 1×1 Design, in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. She’d been a professional architect for years but had never started a business — a scary prospect for anyone but especially for those who go it alone.
“I was the underdog,” she says. “I was 31 years old, a single female, starting an architecture firm by myself. The odds were not in my favor.”
Despite those odds, St. John has led 1×1 Design successfully for the past nine years. However, owning and running her own firm wasn’t always the plan. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“If anything, I always said that I didn’t want to [own my own firm],” she laughs. “Never say never. I didn’t think I wanted to be in charge! But it turns out that the business piece and the marketing piece and all of those things that make the firm work are just as interesting and just as challenging as the architecture piece.”
Speaking with St. John, it’s clear that she likes a challenge. At Clemson, she was in the Honors College, rushed a sorority, and participated in student government and student court, all while managing the massive workload that comes with the Clemson architecture program. She was also one of the first to study at the Clemson Architecture Center in Barcelona.
After graduation, St. John attended graduate school at Georgia Tech for architecture, which eventually led her to a position in Atlanta with a large international firm. She loved the work but missed her family and friends in Columbia. It wasn’t long before she moved back. Five years later, 1×1 Design was born: “I just decided to do it.”
Now, 1×1 Design has a portfolio of projects all over Columbia, a range of small and large, private and corporate, contemporary and traditional. St. John describes one of her favorite projects as a “little jewel box” — a tiny 1960s building that the firm transformed into the home of Simplesurance, a retail store for individual health insurance, in 2014.
“At the time, that kind of retail store wasn’t something that really existed, so we had to kind of deep dive,” St. John says. “It was just one of those projects where everything just came together. My team won a design award for it as well, so that doesn’t hurt.”
Speaking of awards, St. John recently received the 2019 American Institute of Architects Young Architects Award, an achievement that has validated not only her work as an architect but also her success as a firm owner. But one of the things St. John is most proud of is her time on the board of trustees for the Clemson Architectural Foundation.
“Seeing the connection work between Clemson and the profession and the students all at the same time is just fun to watch,” she says. “I’ve traveled around the world with this group. I’ve supported students; I’ve been able to be in class with them and on reviews.
“It’s been one of my favorite experiences in my, I daresay, life.”