To peer into a future marked by ever more smart devices and robotically engineered and manufactured machines, one would do well to explore the fascinating career of Nazareth Ekmekjian. Though commonly referred to as an architectural designer, he has, ironically, never followed a blueprint to plot the story of his success.
In the view of this Syria-born, California-raised Armenian American with sterling educational credentials and wide-ranging professional experience, the landscape is wide open for someone who avoids being pinned down by conventional job descriptions and narrow definitions of architect, designer, engineer, or other labels that miss the point of the Ekmekjian brand. To strip it to its essence, Ekmekjian describes what he does as bringing good things to life—a nod to the classic advertising slogan for the General Electric company of decades ago that still holds true.
He elaborates. “The gist of what I do is to apply my design background and mindset to new problems that vary and are varied in scope. It can range from custom one-of-a-kind fabrication-based art pieces to product design, industrial design for a consumer product, or, in my current position, for an aerospace company. I approach challenges using the critical thinking that leads to creative solutions. It might involve a visual graphic component or a three dimensional representational component or a spatial or material component. I visualize, represent, and design something that I can also build and make real.”
When asked what talents or skills are essential for success in this multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary field, Ekmekjian is quick to respond. “The biggest thing for me is thinking critically, taking in different perspectives, and offering my own contributions within a sea of other voices and opinions. It’s important to put some sense of originality or intention behind what I do. This is in addition to all the software or the hardware-related skills that can be learned. But it’s the critical thinking and understanding other’s intentions that come naturally to me.”
Ekmekjian began his professional journey with a bachelor’s degree from Southern California Institute of Architecture, better known as SCI-Arc—a five-year program that offered the young Ekmekjian a more creative and open-ended approach to architecture. Soon after graduating, he found real world opportunities that, over the next four years, would hone his skills first in fabrication and production, using 6-axis articulated industrial robotic arms; and later, in his position as a robotics technical instructor and manager of the robotics lab at his alma mater SCI-Arc.
By this time, Ekmekjian had become restless to spread his creative wings and explore design from a different perspective than the West Coast, where he was raised and schooled. This meant moving to the opposite side of the country, setting his sights on none other than the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For Ekmekjian, it offered the most interesting master’s degree program that “really spoke to me.”
When he completed his graduate studies, he landed a position at the Boston-based Piaggio Fast Forward—an opportunity that he recalls seemed like one of those “right-time, right-place, too-good-to be true situations.”
He was one of the first employees hired and stayed with the company for the better part of five years. During that time, he worked on a project called gita, which means a short trip in Italian. It’s an apt name for this cargo carrying, hands-free robot designed to promote walkability, which is ideal for navigating city streets unencumbered by heavy groceries or laundry, for example.
“This project really pushed me to grow the most,” notes Ekmekjian. “I worked on gita collaboratively from its inception—from sketches on paper, all the way to an industrialized, mass-produced product. I had never done something of this scope before. As the company grew, it hired more engineers, giving me valuable insight into other disciplines and exposed me to extremely capable problem solvers. Ultimately, the work was no longer just about purely design or purely art fabrications but projects that had to perform for people. It really shifted my perspective on the roles and responsibilities of a designer.”
At this point in the conversation, Ekmekjian pauses to reflect on another important perspective that reinforced
his tendency to think differently. His Syrian-Armenian parents were immigrants who brought him to America as a toddler. Determined to give him a better life, they focused on education as the ticket. Yet it was one thing to pursue the American Dream, but not at the exclusion of cementing a strong Armenian identity. The obvious choice was to send him to AGBU’s premier private school in the western region—the Manoogian-Demirdjian School (MDS).
Ekmekjian attended MDS from kindergarten through high school. “I know how difficult it was for my parents to make that happen financially,” he said. “It was a great sacrifice, but the experience was instrumental to developing my strengths and talents. In addition to the Armenian curricula, we also could take courses in art and sculpture. Those were my favorite classes. There was a German sculpture teacher who stands out in my mind. He gave me some of my earliest opportunities to create things. The school also exposed me to new design software like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, allowing my creativity to really run free.”
However, the person he credits most for inspiring him to pursue the arts was his father, Vahe. “He worked in the construction industry for the longest time before becoming a licensed interior designer and general contractor. He also put himself through eight years of the UCLA extension program in interior design. Much of that involved taking art and drawing classes plus other related disciplines. I grew up watching him evolve professionally, not only for what he could produce on paper but what he could apply in the real world. I must have inherited that mindset from him. He’s always been a talented maker, builder, and, yes, an adventurer willing to take risks.”
Ekmekjian followed suit by taking a leap of faith when accepting a position as Lead Robotics Design Engineer at the aerospace company Relativity Space. It develops in-house manufacturing technology that rethinks the way rockets are designed, built, and flown. Relativity Space 3D prints launch vehicles and rocket engines for commercial clients with payloads that need to enter space, such as satellite companies or other aerospace enterprises.
The biggest thing for me is thinking critically, taking in different perspectives, and offering my own contributions within a sea of other voices and opinions.
Ekmekjian confesses that aerospace was a whole new world for him; he felt the pressure of mastering the industry jargon and protocols. “I also found myself working directly with engineers more than ever before,” he remarked. “The work is very much metric-driven decision making. Criteria such as performance, weight, and cost will make the decisions for you in many ways. This prompted me to tap into my rational side and seek clarity to understand exactly what we are trying to accomplish. It’s all about solving for a seamless integration of function and form with the ultimate goal of achieving the best performance and user experience.”
As his portfolio of industries and projects continues to expand, Ekmekjian seems determined to remain the one player on any given team to think like an outsider—with no preconceptions about what solution will or won’t work until he has thoroughly analyzed, evaluated, interpreted, and synthesized the assignment at hand. He sums it up best, saying, “I like taking an open-ended approach, because creative problem-solving stops where groupthink begins.”