When you first lay eyes on him— a wiry figure with shaggy hair, surprisingly young features, clad in a simple, navy suit— you would never guess that architect Brian Swanson regularly rubs shoulders with some of the richest, most famous people in the world. But when you hear him speak— very quietly, with a precise, almost regal accent— you get the feeling that there’s more than meets the eye. It’s not Swanson’s voice as much as the passion that emanates from it when he’s talking about his career, his family, his life and his journey from apartheid South Africa to Baltimore.
Born in Cape Town, Swanson grew up in a period of tremendous political unrest and economic recession. Somewhat mirroring the ’60s civil rights era in the United States, South Africa was ripe with interracial conflict. “The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife,” Swanson says. “I was often scared for my own safety.”
Swanson has loved architecture for as long as he can remember, and after attending architecture school at the University of Natal in Durban, he signed on with an international architectural firm in Durban. While in Durban, he also met his future wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1973. By 1977, he was promoted, and moved to the Johannesburg branch. “We had to build commercial shopping centers, hotels, restaurants… I was in my 20s,” recollects Swanson. “You had to do everything in those days.”
He did do everything, and in 1979, his work paid off. When the Johannesburg branch shut down due to civil turmoil in the city, Swanson was selected to travel to America to work for the firm in Maryland.
Swanson worked for the firm for four more years, mainly building commercial shopping centers. He left the company to work for a Baltimore-based firm. In 1983, at an industry conference in New Orleans, he met New Yorker Dan Barteluce, then a principal of the architectural firm HTI. They immediately hit it off, and the next week Swanson found himself traveling to New York, where Barteluce offered him a position to head up a satellite office in Baltimore, which he did until 1986.
Then he and Margaret started Swanson Design. “It was myself and my wife, really, just running the show,” Swanson says. “For two years, we were really producing amazing designs,” he remembers fondly.
When Barteluce launched Barteluce Architects & Associates in 1989, he asked Swanson to join up as a consultant on a project- by-project basis (he was named creative designer for the firm in 2004). In that capacity, Swanson was traveling weekly to Manhattan, and the firm grew throughout the ’90s. In 1996, the firm won the contract to design stores for the jewelry chain Cartier. “A pivotal moment,” according to Swanson. After succeeding with Cartier, they secured other high-end retail contracts in America: Burberry. Chanel. Roberto Cavalli. Fendi. Dolce & Gabbana. Before he knew it, Swanson was jetting across the country, building stores for the most exclusive fashion brands in the world.
Then, in 2006, billionaire entrepreneur Steve Wynn called. He was opening the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, a resort, hotel and casino comprised of two giant towers connected by an enclosed shopping promenade. Wynn wanted to lace the strip with a collection of the most exclusive stores in the world— including Chanel and Hermés— and he wanted Barteluce Architects to design them. “Sometimes I pinch myself, really,” admits Swanson. “I don’t know if it gets much better than that.”
But maybe it does. In between his two dozen or so trips to Vegas, Swanson was hired by model/TV personality Tyra Banks to build and design her new apartment, located a block from the World Trade Center site. He’s got business in Russia with the giant retail chain TSUM and he’s currently competing to win the global rollout contracts of Hugo Boss and Lacoste.
Still, with all his traveling and business success, he remains modest and mindful of his South African roots. “I try to go back as often as possible,” Swanson says, smiling. “It’s like getting into a nice, warm bath.”