Dream Teams

From a songwriting duo to engineers who spawn doe-eyed robots, meet four pairs who define—and defy—the terms of a creative partnership.

By Carlin Flora, published May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A stellar team is greater than the sum of its individuals' ideas—from the Beatles to Google to Regis and Kelly, the world teems with proof of this exponential synergy.

Ultimately, the magic behind innovative duos comes down to a few key ingredients: The pair usually has a shared vision, and complementary talents and temperaments. "If one scientist is theoretical and the other is a great lab administrator, they can be very productive," says Vera John-Steiner, a University of New Mexico professor and the author of Creative Collaboration.

A careful balance of encouragement and criticism enables creative partners to bring out the best in each other. In the beginning stages of a project, John-Steiner says, the ideas need to flow freely, but great duos must help each other find the "rough diamond" in the brainstorm. And they must give each other honest feedback: "A sense of timing with regard to criticism is so important, because partners are emotionally as well as intellectually interdependent."

Teams that work and sleep together may have a double-edged partnership. Though the collaboration can be especially exciting, with time it can lead to a sense of certainty about a partner's ideas—a danger, says John-Steiner, since the freedom to explore new territory is a requisite to creativity.

Dividing the bounty from shared endeavors is often difficult, but the rewards of connectedness can surpass individual glory. A signature benefit of collaboration is that it enables each person to be more daring, because the risk is spread out between them. Two people can challenge the prevailing wisdom in their field more comfortably than a solo operator. PT profiles four duos that have gone the distance.

Master Builders: Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown

A McDonald's arch sits astride the grand entrance to the Philadelphia home of architectural titans Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The living room is crammed with neon signs from long-gone Vegas casinos. But the couple is unlikely to be mistaken for a pair of Americana-obsessed retirees, given their mantra that "context is everything." The signs sit atop antique furniture picked up on trips to France and Spain, and the dining room ceiling is stenciled with names of the greats: Bach, Beethoven, Michelangelo.

Bob and Denise are collaborators who've been cast in the role of rebels—a distinction they sometimes embrace and sometimes dislike. They believe they complement each other superbly, though the world hasn't always been eager to acknowledge them as a team. And their work and homelife are seamless: They spend most of their time at their firm, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, and come home to eat supper side by side, while watching their favorite BBC comedies.

Considered among the most influential architects of the last century, Bob and Denise have earned accolades even as their radical perspectives—a preference for "the ugly and ordinary" over the "heroic and original"—enraged critics and colleagues. They began exchanging ideas when they met in 1960 and have been official collaborators since they married seven years later. They play with popular symbolism (the bank they designed in Celebration, Florida, looks like a 1950s hamburger stand) and over-the-top effects: Venturi famously stated, "Less is a bore," in response to the modernist mantra "Less is more."

On planning jobs—a university campus layout, for example—Denise takes the lead, whereas on architecture projects, Bob is usually the head designer. "Bob has an intuitive approach to design," says Heather Clark, a long-time architect at their firm, "while Denise is more thoughtful. She brings a broader way of thinking to the project. She's the one who will say things such as, 'Where will the coffee pot go?'"

Venturi, for his part, says that the two work in parallel. "We each combine a rational, pragmatic way of solving the problem at hand with a kind of jumping-all-over, nonrational approach."

The office atmosphere can get tense when Bob and Denise disagree. "A lot of times they both have ideas, and they want to get them out there, and one feels they're interrupting the other," Clark says. "Bob can be very dramatic—intentionally so. They push each other, so in the end the design is much stronger than if one person had done it."

"Bob's an Italian opera character in Brooks Brothers clothing," opines Denise. "Being married gives us twice the opportunity for abrasion. But it also makes life more graphic, vital, vivid, and intense. And if you don't argue, good things don't come out."

"Denise takes Bob places that he does not otherwise go," says their son, James, who is making a documentary about the two. "And then Bob will go deep in those areas, but so will Denise, so they are very complementary."

If he hadn't met Denise, Bob wouldn't have looked to pop art for inspiration—she took him to Las Vegas to show him how to view kitsch through the lens of architectural history, and on that trip they fell in love.

But to build their firm, they had to capitalize on Bob's reputation as a design wizard—a strategy that exacerbated a continuing problem for the pair: Bob repeatedly received credit in the press for their joint work. Denise attributes the snubs to sexism, as well as to a "star system" in architecture that wanted to uphold the myth of the solitary genius.

Denise has been outspoken in defending herself, but today laments, "All it's done is make everyone write about my 'woman's problem,' whereas the solution is to write about my work." Bob states that any past lapses in giving his wife credit reflect his inability to separate the pair's respective contributions. "I don't really think that much in terms of her versus me," he says. "When I'm giving a lecture, and I can't think of a word in the middle of it, I'll look down and say 'Denise—what's the word?' And she'll know it."

As Denise gleefully adds, "One of our clients said, 'When you have Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown together, you have double your problems.' There's no retreat!"

Broadway Balladeers: Marcy Heisler & Zina Goldrich

Hundreds of characters, from precocious children to hapless princes, haunt the crevices of Marcy Heisler's Manhattan apartment. It's where most of them were created, groomed, and given voice. Marcy, a lyricist, is at home most days, sitting back-to-back with composer Zina Goldrich. On a laptop, Marcy plays with a libretto for their forthcoming Broadway show, Ever After, based on the 1998 movie. Zina sways over an upright piano while a tape recorder catches spontaneous phrases.

"Let's farm it!" Marcy says. "When we get close to a melodic structure," Zina explains, "I sing it with nonsense stories about a farm, like, 'The chickens like to go see the cows.' That allows me to plant the song, so Marcy knows what rhythm the lyrics need to follow."

Marcy and Zina giggle and bounce around like two girls at a slumber party. As they debate the plot points they must hit and the emotional tones they want to strike, the Diet Coke cans pile up; barely a second of silence offsets the music and banter.

Marcy and Zina have written off-Broadway theater shows, including Junie B. Jones, and songs for television clients such as Disney, for 15 years. Their romantic comedies reflect a shared attitude toward love: "neurotic optimism." It's on display in "That's All," in which a character starts off with high hopes:

What do I want in a woman?

Platinum hair and smart and funny

Disposition: sweet and sunny

Goes to yoga, comes from money—that's all!

But by song's end, he espouses more realistic desires:

A girl with any color hair

Who actually wants me there

And walks and talks and breathes the air—that's all!

The pair met at a musical theater workshop. After being "just friends" for a year, they started to collaborate by creating a series of songs for children, about manners.

They usually agree on what's working and what needs to be tweaked, but when they don't, they follow two rules: First, they can't be angry at each other for more than 45 minutes, and second, if they are arguing about a song and the issue is lyrical, Marcy gets the final word. If it's a musical quandary, Zina decides how to resolve the conflict.

"Marcy's written with other people, I've written with other people, which can be like birthing an elephant—a really painful experience," says Zina. They think of their connection as a mystery, akin to romantic chemistry. "There's a bit of fairy dust involved in the whole thing. But at the core is our friendship." If Zina goes to Marcy's apartment to work, for example, and notices plates in the sink, she rolls up her sleeves. "I hate doing dishes at my own house. But if Marcy hasn't done hers, it's an indicator that she's sad."

"I always say Aaron is my husband, and Marcy is my wife," Zina jokes. "My husband is really supportive of what we do, but he's bewildered by the bond Marcy and I have." Composing music together demands wearing your heart on your sleeve, Marcy explains. "When you're doing something that requires you to be so out there emotionally, it's a relationship that's hard to replicate."

Adam Epstein, the producer who hired the pair for Ever After recalls seeing them for the first time at a songwriters' forum in 2002. "Their energy is so infectious. Some teams stay together out of fear or for financial reasons, but Marcy and Zina have a natural collaboration. They see the world through the same prism." At the same time, they inhabit distinct spheres:

Marcy is a single girl-about-town while Zina has two young children. The contrast gives them a broader range of relationship scenarios to tap into for their work.

The struggle to succeed in show business is intense. "When you're pursuing this craft on this level, there's a lot at stake," says Marcy. "There always a lot of pressure to create what's popular. What we recognized in each other was our own need to live close to our own souls. I knew that working with Zina would take my voice the farthest it could go."

Two Men and a Machine: Aaron Edsinger & Jeff Weber

In the heyday of San Francisco's dot-com boom, Stanford grads Aaron Edsinger and Jeff Weber rejected start-ups in favor of "OmniCircus," a Marxist art movement that staged robotic uprisings. There they helped build a mechanical red-light district, meant to showcase society's cast-offs. Its robot stars included Plowgirl, a babbling junkie, and Godfella, a street-preacher with a loudspeaker.

A dozen years later, Jeff and Aaron's crowning achievement, Domo, hails not from a techno-art collective but from MIT's prestigious Humanoid Robotics Lab. Domo, an adorably saucer-eyed 42-pound creature, can do simple chores such as put away groceries and mix drinks. He even gives hugs. When Aaron delivered Domo to a colleague's lab a while ago, he confessed that he felt like a heartsick dad dropping his kid off at camp.

"I've always been an inventor," says Aaron, who grew up building go-carts on a farm in Washington state. Jeff, spent his childhood in Montana, where his father encouraged him to take apart appliances and put them back together. The pair met as post-college roommates and quickly discovered they shared the same sense of humor, the same taste in art, and the same penchant for building things.

One day they watched a video of a robotic art show and immediately sought out a troupe to get involved with. "Over the next five years we were intensive artistic collaborators," says Aaron. "Our lives revolved around teaching ourselves how to build robots. Our day jobs just paid the rent."

But their bohemian lifestyle was turned upside down in 2000, when Aaron was accepted to a Ph.D. program at MIT and set out for Boston. After a few months, a staff position—machine shop director—opened up in the Humanoid Robotics Lab where Aaron was studying. He strongly recommended Jeff for the job. Jeff was hired, and the team was reunited, this time to take on academia. "It was a big learning experience for both of us," Aaron says. "We went from low-tech artistic sculpture to cutting-edge robotics. We were not stellar in a lot of areas, such as math."

What they lacked in knowledge, they made up for in a well-oiled working style. "We're both fairly laid back," says Aaron. "There's barely any conflict. Neither of us is hugely dramatic or verbal. Jeff is a great designer, intuitively. And if he says he's going to take on a task, he will actually do it and get it done."

"We are both good at compromising and respecting each other's ideas," says Jeff. "What I've learned from Aaron is his ability to concentrate without being distracted. He's really pushed me to do the same, especially when we were working 10 to 15 hours a day, including weekends, for eight months, to make Domo."

Charlie Kemp, an alumnus of the MIT lab and now a professor at Georgia Tech, argues that Aaron's and Jeff's skills are complementary. Jeff concentrates on the "body," building the actual parts by making prototypes with different materials and mechanical structures, while Aaron handles the "brains," the electronic signaling and computer programming that directs the robot.

Their shared artistic sensibility, Kemp says, further sets them apart from their colleagues, most of whom have straight-laced engineering backgrounds. "Domo is beautifully designed and even endearing," Kemp says. "People respond to it partly because Aaron and Jeff prioritized aesthetics, something a more rigid engineering type wouldn't have done." Kemp recalls the moment when someone wanted to tack an additional sensor onto Domo. "It was a minor alteration, but Aaron said no because it looked horrible."

Robots are the primary topic of conversation, even when they socialize. Over the years, girlfriends have expressed annoyance at their intense collaboration. "If I have a girlfriend, she's going to have to be good friends with Jeff," says Aaron.

Now back in San Francisco, they've founded Meka Robotics, with the goal of building advanced prosthetic limbs and humanoid machines that will help people in need. "We'd like the company to become a creative playground as well as a functional lab," says Aaron. "We're still working out who will do what for the businesses," says Jeff. "It would be hard for us to survive without each other."

Scissor Sisters: Chrissy Azzaro & Nicole Azzaro

If fashion is equal parts art and commerce, the Los Angeles-based Azzaro sisters Chrissy and Nicole—are a perfect blend for the business. Together they run Hope & Glorie, a line of cozy yet glamorous clothing.

Ten years ago, Chrissy began working as a personal shopper for ladies of leisure and soon launched her own line of cotton basics, My-Tee. Creating the designs came naturally to her; being a salesperson, marketer, and production manager did not. Chrissy realized she needed help and "loaded up the family."

That meant convincing fellow fashionista Nicole, then a college marketing major, to help manage My-Tee and co-create a new label with seasonal collections named after their grandmother Gloria.

Their collaboration soon propelled Chrissy's endeavor to new heights: My-Tee produced over $1.2 million in sales last year, and Hope & Glorie collections hang in high-end boutiques around the country. The tipping point for the new line's success occurred at a "swag" lounge backstage at the MTV Movie Awards. Chrissy caught sight of tabloid regular Jessica Alba among the celebrities trolling for free stuff and whipped together a bag of goodies to hand directly to the actress. The next day, Alba wore a Hope & Glorie top on a press interview; photos of the moment turned up in 10 different magazines.

As kids, Chrissy was the artist and Nicole the cheerleader; their orientations haven't changed much. "We have completely different personalities," says Nicole. "I'm anal-retentive, organized, tactical, and pragmatic. Chrissy is creative. She can have a million things going on at once—and that's when I tighten the reins on her."

"Nicole's a spitfire and I'm calmer,"says Chrissy. "I tend to love so many different designs, but she will step right in and tell me which ones to focus on and develop. She's got a great eye."

What they have in common, Chrissy says, is high expectations and dreams for the family business.

"I would work hard somewhere else, but having personal financial investment in this company definitely motivates me to put everything I have into it," says Nicole.

Nicole's greatest challenge is communicating with the factory in China, which often involves waking up at 3 A.M. to accommodate the time difference. Chrissy spends her time immersed in inspirational movies and magazines, imagining themes for forthcoming seasons.

The Azzaro partnership is padded with familial support. "In the beginning, we were having difficulties establishing boundaries," says Nicole. "My sister was used to doing everything, and it was hard for her to relinquish control and sit back and create."

So Chrissy brought in her husband, organizational psychologist Adam Kling, to help them define their roles and chart out goals. "I pointed out that they have a classic CEO/COO relationship, where Chrissy generates ideas and Nicky figures out how to make them happen." Kling advised them to disengage from disagreements and "sleep on it" when they find themselves getting too emotional.

"The downside of being siblings," Kling says, "is that business arguments can bleed into the personal, and personal arguments can bleed into the business. But overall, Hope & Glorie is helped by the fact that they have an established relationship. They really trust one another."

Their mother, an artist who hails from Ecuador, drops by the studio to share ideas for outfits. Sometimes, all three women gather around to watch films from the '30s and '40s for stylistic inspiration. "When we were little, Mom would always sit us in front of Shirley Temple movies,"Chrissy remembers. Now, her 2-year-old son often toddles underfoot while everyone is at work.

"We do bicker, especially as the stress of pulling together a collection piles on," admits Nicole. "Sometimes, I'll ask her a question about work, and then I'll realize that I didn't ask how her day was."

"We've put everything we've earned back into the business," says Chrissy. "But it's not a bad deal. We love what we do."