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With Oprah and other media folks calling, Susanka left the firm in 1999, necessitating a name change.
“I always liked the acronym SALA, which stood for the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture,” said Mulfinger. “It also means a special room in Italian.”
SALA didn’t follow the traditional structure of founding partners at the top controlling the work. “The traditional way to run a firm was the genius person who started it, supported by worker bees,” said Duo Dickinson, a Connecticut architect. “Dale took that model and flipped it on its head.”
Instead, Mulfinger modeled his firm after a law firm. “Each of the architects have their own clients and their own projects,” he said. “What binds us together is the shared expenses, support and the camaraderie.”
Mulfinger encouraged architects to get out and connect with homeowners, and was a leader in developing the AIA Home of the Month program and the annual Homes by Architects tour.
“Sometimes I feel like the father of residential architecture in Minnesota,” he said. “SALA believed in sharing — that’s how we grew. We all win.”
Mulfinger also spent time nurturing young architects, connecting with them via his dry sense of humor. Bill Blanski, a former student, now an architect at HGA, remembers Mulfinger inviting the whole class to his Linden Hills home for dinner. “We all stared at an orange rectangle painted on the ceiling,” said Blanski. “He said ‘Don’t you get it? This defines the space.’ ”
Many SALA architects, such as Jean Rehkamp Larson, went on to start their own firms. “Dale taught me that residential architecture is a profession, not just something you do on the side,” she said.
Mulfinger is nationally known, said Tom Fisher, professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “He’s a great model for students by showing them that you can make good design affordable for everyone.”
Now 70, Mulfinger is shifting gears to travel and spend more time with his two grown daughters and four grandchildren. Last spring he taught his last semester on cabin design at the U. “It’s time to open a slot for younger professors and youthful ideas,” he said. He’s no longer an owner of SALA but continues to take on numerous projects, from consulting to designing a ski lodge in Montana. He has no plans to retire from architecture.
“God, is it fun,” he said.
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619