Writing in Slate, architect and author Witold Rybczynski analyzes trends in the naming of architecture firms.
In 1857, when the American Institute of Architects was founded, architecture was struggling to be perceived as a profession like law. Thus the preference of early architecture firms for stringing together the names of their principal partners. It took a century for some firms to break with that tradition and start using initials, which, Rybcyznski writes, "carried the cachet of efficiency and no-nonsense, just like—well, IBM." There was another advantage to using initials: it solved "the delicate issue of succession" after the original principals left the scene. The best-known initializer remains SOM, originally Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Things really changed in the 1960s and '70s with the advent of coined names like Archigram in London, Archizoom in Florence, and Morphosis in Los Angeles. "The trendy monikers made up for the fact that these fledgling firms created more drawings than actual buildings," Rybczynski observes. "Impatient to make a name for themselves, the young designers did the next best thing—they made up names, usually names that made them sound both arty and avant-garde."
Made-up names say "cutting edge," says Rybczynski, who sees a "subversive" new trend on the horizon: having it both ways. Case in point: Architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas, who "has adopted a serious-sounding organizational name, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, whose corporate initials—OMA—sound like a Buddhist mantra (and the German for grandma)."
Rybczynski doesn't mention it, but I find it interesting that many of these firms' websites don't use the .com domain extension. Archigram, Morphosis, and Noroof (in Brooklyn) use .net; OMA uses the Dutch country code, .nl. I don't think these choices are a matter of coincidence or exigency. Rather, .net and .nl are yet another way to say "we're different."
(By the way, Rybczynski's own name is pronounced VITT-old rib-CHIN-ski. I've enjoyed several of his books, most especially Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World.)