My heart still hurts. It has been ten days since we as an industry lost a great talent, Graham Downes, and I and many, a friend. I have sat down a few times to write this blog, but I think part of me still can’t believe he is gone. At 56 years old and so full of life, his time was cut way too short, and by such a senseless act of violence (he died from injuries sustained from an altercation with an employee at one of his house parties). Besides his contagious personality that could fill an entire room, as an ex rugby player, he was one of the strongest guys I knew.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Graham. We had featured one of his San Diego nightclubs and had talked via email but had never met in person. In 2004, he was coming to HD Expo (he was always a wonderful supporter of our events) so we set up a time to meet at the HD booth—day two of the show, 10 a.m. Little did I know, my now-husband was proposing to me the night before and that it would be a fairly late night celebrating. Keeping my promise, I raced over to the booth to meet Graham; I had heard I had to know him and didn’t want to cancel. He was sitting at the booth in one of his striped Robert Graham shirts, and I, a bit flustered, ran up, immediately apologized, and explained why I was a bit tardy. He—in his boisterous South African accent—asked why I was even there, and then proceeded to ask me a zillion questions about my fiancé, how it happened, our story, etc. I tried to change the subject a few times to his work and his practice, but the caring, genuine person he was, made him more concerned with who I was and the exciting next chapter of my life. That’s just who Graham was.
Later that year we included Graham in a feature on “5 Design Firms You Should Know” because let’s be honest, as I was once told, people needed to know him if they didn’t already. My favorite line from the story (a bad snapshot of it is below): “I always want to design places everyone can go to; I like the accessibility. I capture what endures, what’s fresh and immediate. It’s a big production, like a fashion show. If I had to do life again I would be a fashion designer or a rock star. I can’t sing though.”
Maybe he couldn’t sing, but he sure could design. He fought hard to start his firm (opened it with a credit card in 1994) and keep it alive and thriving, and always bragged about the awesome staff he had. (See the last profile we did on Graham last May.) Some of his notable projects were Tower23 in Pacific Beach, California, and the Hard Rock San Diego, along with a slew of restaurants and nightclubs. And he won an HD Award for the Padre Hotel in 2011.
He didn’t just work in San Diego—he lived and breathed the town. In 2006, I actually moved there for a three-year stint while my husband finished up his tour as a Navy helicopter pilot, and naturally, he took me under his wing. One day he drove me (in his extremely nice car) around Bankers Hill (where he lived) and in his fast, heavy-accented speech, where I probably missed every third word, passionately explained to me the new developments that were happening. He spoke about them with pride, even if he wasn’t involved with them, as this was his town. It’s no surprise he started Blokhaus, a development extension of his firm Graham Downes Architecture, in 2011, to help revitalize various parts of the city like the Barrio Logan and downtown with socially conscious and economically sustainable developments. He always wanted to use architecture for a greater good.
That’s just who he was. People thrived off of his energy and spirit—I mean he has more than 4,500 Facebook friends. He was always up for a good time—I have such great memories with him in San Diego and Vegas—he was a mentor to many, and inspired even more. My last email exchange with him was about how much he was looking forward to HD Summit, and of course, a personal note: “Stace: hope you and Jon are having a lot of fun with little Jack!” I am so glad I got to catch up with him at the event just north of his hometown over a drink, once again looking dapper in his new glasses and purple suit.
I think a release I was sent sums him up even more perfectly than I can: “To his family and friends, Downes was known as an exciting and adventurous man who did no less than devour life. There were no half-measures in his world and those who knew him socially surely have a memorable story to tell in which he is invariably at the center! Downes is survived by everyone who ever met him, for if you did, you will certainly remember him.”
We at HD want to honor him as well. If you are headed to HD Expo in two weeks, look for a meter board featuring our last profile of him and some of his impressive work. It will stand some six feet tall in the entry hall to the show, so like him, it will be hard to miss. It’s a chance for all to take a minute to pay their respects, or just smile remembering one fantastic guy.
Graham’s profile from November 2004