There’s something about Pum Lefebure, cofounder of Design Army, that’s reminiscent of a D.C. superhero—the Washington kind, not the comics kind. In sequins and enormous glasses that magnify her blue-winged eyeliner, she marches over ladders and ducts at the construction site of her newest project, a photography studio and creative hub for the local artistic community. It’s not the first time Lefebure has set her sights on the capital’s culture; Design Army has worked with Smithsonian, CityCenter DC, Washingtonian, and the Washington Ballet. Now, dwarfed by 25-foot ceilings and washed by the light from a massive window wall, Lefebure is plotting a vision for the future of greater D.C. design.
Washington and ‘creative hub’ might seem as alike as two peas in a swindler’s shell game. The name Washington rings drab government buildings, chummy lobbyist lunches, and empty pavements when everyone goes home to Virginia at the end of the day.
An arts scene here? Tell me another one.
Design Army calls its aesthetic "bold, streamlined, witty, and to the point". Image courtesy of © Design Army.
But Lefebure insists that the city has its own vibrant base, and it’s mushrooming. Sure, D.C. rolls through four- and eight-year cycles as Democrats and Republicans pendulum swing in and out of the White House, but there are also stable institutions holding down the fort, like the World Bank, big corporations, and international embassies. “It’s an extremely international group of people and they are smart,” Lefebure says.
Smarts, style, and a destination food scene have started to converge into a recognizable trend that usually spells massive change for a city. In the chicken and egg dance of gentrification and urban revitalization, artists and designers have been pushed out of the Northwest quadrant of Georgetown and Dupont Circle, and into new neighborhoods. The smart ones, like Lefebure and her husband Jake, embraced the change and doubled down, leapfrogging from business savvy to entrepreneurialism by investing in real estate. Lefebure now owns four properties, including the Design Army building and the new 10,000 square-foot studio a 10 minute drive from downtown.
An entrepreneurial predisposition and vision got Lefebure where she is today. The self-described wild child from Bangkok arrived in middle of nowhere Virginia as a foreign exchange student and stayed to complete a BFA at Radford University. Based on her student Visa status, she would only have one year to get a job after graduating otherwise, “Bye bye—you are going back to Thailand,” she says. Lefebure buckled down during undergrad, designing brochures and magazines for the university. “It was the first time that I'm totally in charge of my own destiny," says Lefebure. "It's up to me to make every single decision: Do I go party on a Friday night? Yes, but I will get up tomorrow and go work on a brochure.”
By the time she graduated, she had the portfolio of someone two years into the business. She spent hours designing a resume and sent it to her dream firm in D.C. Knowing it was the perfect job, she only made one copy. She told the agency she was in D.C. for spring break to nudge an interview, then drove six hours for the 30-minute talk. “You have to have a vision, a goal, and a dream,” she says. “Even though you have no idea how the hell you’re going to get from here to there.” Maybe it was her moxie, or maybe it was that Lefebure’s portfolio included professional view books and brochures made during the 20-hour work weeks that she squeezed into her undergrad career. Either way, Lefebure was hired on the spot.
The self-described wild child from Bangkok arrived in middle of nowhere Virginia, completed a BFA at Radford University, and then rose to the top of D.C. design. Photography by Jacopo Moschin.
Rising through the ranks to Senior Art Director, she met her husband, Jake. “We would work late together,” Lefebure recalls on how they fell in love, cheekily adding, “He would work less hard than me." The power duo started Design Army at their kitchen table with Lefebure working full-time so they could have health insurance, and both staying up until 3 a.m. to get the business off the ground. When I ask Jake what his favorite thing about working with Lefebure is, she takes the mic and holds it up closer to his mouth to catch his answer. “Just one?” he winks. They anticipated it would be two years before Design Army took off enough for Lefebure to leave her safety net job. It was four months. They credit happy clients with big mouths for the rocket launch.
A jumbled shelf of design awards—winged figures, mounted lightbulbs, gold pencils that look like plumb bobs—from London International Awards, One Show, D&AD reminds the Design Army team that they’re in competition with Japan, Germany, Australia, Singapore. “I don’t want to be D.C. good,” Lefebure says. “I don’t want to be U.S. good. We need to be world good”.
How does Design Army stand out against world competition to win contracts with clients like The Ritz-Carlton, Bloomingdales, JW Marriot, and Pepsi? Lefebure says it’s the mix of strategy and execution that her firm brings to their design packages. Once, a real estate developer came to her to rebrand an emerging D.C. neighborhood. Lefebure reenacts the conversation: "Pum,” he said, "I need a full page ad in The Washingtonian." To which she replied, “I think you can make a better use of time creating your own Washingtonian.” Lefebure pitched the developer a recurring print periodical called D/CITY. The publication features mom and pop shops, lists community events, and surfaces local creatives for sartorial spreads. The back page? An ad for the developer’s condos. The DNA of how a neighborhood changes is hard to trace, but certainly things are looking different now. Warby Parker has since moved in, along with Aesop.
The Eye Ball from Design Army on Vimeo.
Design Army takes aim at the underlying psychology of their clients’ problems. Cosmetic fixes don’t interest them. The design and execution has to function. If a client came to her to redecorate a bedroom, Lefebure says to illustrate her approach, Design Army would not repaint the colors in the room. “I’m going to knock down the whole wall,” she says. “We are about architecture. We are not a painter.” That’s not for everyone and Design Army says no to clients all the time, avoiding the ones who are risk-averse. “My theory is you cannot do epic stuff with basic people,” says Lefebure. “You are only as good as your client allows.”
D/CITY illustrates another of Lefebure’s business strategies: get a client hooked on the benefits of producing good content. The magazine is on its twelfth issue. In addition, she’s built an Instagram for the publication. It currently measures about a third of The Washingtonian’s audience. Social media is its own Design Army business unit with four full-time staff. The firm will launch a social channel for a client and run it in house for six months to build the brand voice. Often the client asks Design Army to continue managing the feed when the six months are up.
At the moment, Lefebure’s focus is on Design Army's new creative space under construction across the border in Maryland. Jake snapped up the cavernous space, perched on a hill overlooking a highway, before it went on the market—it’s down the road from the storage unit where he tinkers with motorcycles on the weekends. The tire-churned dirt courtyard is about as serene as a construction site can get—like Gatsby’s house before all the guests arrive. Lefebure envisions a glittering future of photo shoots, TEDx events, dance performances, test kitchen dinners, and free painting classes for students on the weekends. There are dressing rooms for models and dancers in an upstairs balcony, a workshop, and garage doors so cars can drive in for commercials. Lefebure is calling it At Yolk after the rich core of an egg, the genesis of creation.
“You cannot do epic stuff with basic people,” says Lefebure. “You are only as good as your client allows.” Image courtesy of © Design Army.
There are hints of Lefebure’s entrepreneurialism in this project. Revitalization is stirring in Maryland. Design Army is working with a client to rebrand another neighborhood in Maryland, much like the D/CITY initiative. They anticipate that it will take 10 years for the At Yolk neighborhood to take off. (But remember when Design Army’s timeline to self-sufficiency happened in one-sixth the time expected?) In the meantime, they plan to recoup their investment with market rate rents—adjusted based on the projects, space use, and whenever they need to pay back a favor or want to support a friend.
Our space visit runs long, and we end up speeding in Jake’s car toward Union Station so I can catch the train. Lefebure runs with me, her straight hair flying, past the buses and the businessmen, to the tracks. “Don’t stop,” she says. When I make it to the platform and turn to see her—bespectacled, be-sequined—stretched out in a Warrior I-style lunge to wave goodbye, her arm raised like a discus thrower, like a D.C. superhero.
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.