A case of smaller is better: Tammy Cohen designs creative studio in Birmingham

By Jennifer Ekman, Birmingham Business Journal

Tammy Cohen has always treasured the camaraderie of a small office. That’s where her creativity and ideas flow.

Cohen and her husband, Richard Carnaggio, work together in the 10-person architectural and interior design firm, Cohen & Co. Inc., she launched in 1996. They live next door to their downtown office, which is located in a building they renovated.

Along with Carnaggio, Cohen has added another business partner, Karen Reynolds. Together, the trio plans to formulate a Web site and a new name for the company in the coming months.

Focusing on design

Most importantly, they all share the same goal, Cohen says. “We want to keep the firm small so we can focus on design and be more like a studio,” she says. “The larger the firm gets, the more corporate it gets.”

With a small group, Cohen says, she’s able to focus her team on better designs and serving the clients’ needs. More importantly, the creative feel of the office isn’t disrupted.

A small firm also allows Cohen the chance to develop close, personal relationships with her clients. “Keeping people coming back to you is what keeps you moving and growing,” she says.

John Lauriello, a principal at Birmingham-based Southpace Properties Inc., says Cohen’s teamwork approach makes every project easier. Over the last four years, Cohen has worked with the commercial real estate firm on a variety of projects, including both new construction and rehabilitation efforts.

After 20 years with another architectural firm, Lauriello says he moved to Cohen & Co. when his architect retired and recommended Cohen.

“I find her just extremely talented,” he says. “We’ve never missed a beat.”

He says the firm’s creativity is matched by a precise attention to detail and fair pricing.

“The turnaround time is wonderful, and their work is great,” he says. “I hope to work with them a long, long time. This relationship is better than a family.”

The trademark Cohen creativity has lent its stamp to a variety of projects across the Birmingham area, from rehabilitation of downtown buildings to new designs regionwide. The Homewood City Hall and Parking Deck project has the firm designing everything from civic buildings to condos. Cohen is also proud of the work her firm did on the Kress Building renovation for the law firm of Wiggins Childs Quinn & Pantazis PC. Other notable projects include the Legg Lofts and Soho Flats, which includes condos and retail.

Of her leap into entrepreneurship in 1996, Cohen says: “I guess it was the desire to be your own boss.”

When Cohen moved to Birmingham in 1990, she worked at two larger firms, Giattina Fisher Aycock Architects Inc. and The Garrison Barrett Group Inc. Before long, friends and clients were asking her to design their homes. They liked her unique blend of architecture and interior design. Soon, these residential projects turned into commercial buildings, now the focus of her small firm.

Since Cohen added the other business partners, they have worked to balance the work load. Cohen handles marketing and business development, and Carnaggio and Reynolds focus on design.

Cohen says she enjoys the people side of the business, even though her architecture training didn’t necessarily prepare her for the roller-coaster ride of entrepreneurship.

Over the years, she says she’s had to work hardest on developing her people skills, and that has been the most rewarding.

Her advice to aspiring business owners? “Be flexible. You have to fill every role from receptionist to architect.”

Cohen says she and Carnaggio don’t really divide their business and personal lives since they are so passionate about architecture. “What we do takes most of our time and energy,” she says. “It’s really all that interests us. It’s hard to separate it, and I don’t want to separate it.”

Of the firm’s mix between rehabilitation and new construction, Cohen says she’s open to different types of projects.

“We don’t try to limit ourselves,” she says.

Since she started the firm, she says she has noticed a surge in interest in historic rehabilitation and a return to downtown.

Now, rather than merely suggesting this to clients, they are seeking her out to implement these ideas.

“We try to find different uses for old buildings, such as mixing living with working. We want to focus on that real urban core,” she says.

Article originally published by Birmingham Business Journal.