August 1, 2017

10 Questions With… Deborah Berke

Architect Deborah Berke was already a celebrated minimalist when she joined Interior Design’s Hall of Fame in 2002. Today, Deborah Berke Partners continues its superb hospitality work and timeless luxury residential projects, including apartment interiors for New York’s skyscraping 432 Park Avenue. The firm is working on the development of The Women’s Building, which transforms a flood-damaged NYC correctional facility into a feminist hub in Chelsea. Deborah Berke Partners’ design for the 21C Museum Hotel Nashville, its seventh design for the boutique hotel chain, is featured in our August issue. (We covered outpost number six, in Oklahoma City, last year.) And don’t forget that Berke, a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects, serves as dean of Yale’s School of Architecture. Here she answers our top ten questions.

Deborah Berke Shares Insights into Her Design Process

Deborah Berke in a black sleeveless top near shelves of booksInterior Design: How is the design of the 21C Museum Hotel Oklahoma City characteristic of your work?

Deborah Berke: A lot of our work involves transforming old buildings for new uses. We approach each of these projects differently. In this instance, we were lucky to be working on a great modern factory building by Albert Kahn, which had a very clear geometry and spatial order. Our challenge was to bring natural light into the center of the building and create smaller spaces within the floorplates without compromising the sense of expansiveness of Kahn’s design.

ID: What is the strangest or most exotic place you ever stayed, and how did it influence your viewpoint on hotel design?

DB: Last summer I traveled to Japan with my family. As an architect, I was very moved by it as a place, from the design of its buildings to its everyday objects to the daily rituals of living. It is not surprising to find so many amazing Japanese architects and designers, given that design is at the very heart of Japanese culture. While I was there I was lucky to see the Hotel Okura and its fabulous lobby, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. The demolition of the space was a huge loss for everyone who cares about design.

ID: Pencil or pen?

DB: Both. Pencils for sketching—I’m a visual thinker so I draw all the time, often without even realizing I’m doing it—and black pens for writing. I’m not obsessive about writing implements like some architects. It’s not a fetish for me.

ID: Picture books, or Pinterest, and why?

DB: Books, books, books. Designing libraries for clients is one of my favorite things. I also love to include bookshelves with sitting areas in hallways and stair landings, creating moments to pause and think, not just to pass through. And I’ve written a few books over the years, including my current book, House Rules, and my upcoming book, Working. I love photography, I love writers and writing, and I love graphic design, so the process of conceiving and putting together a book is very satisfying to me.

ID: What famous building do you wish you had designed?

DB: I’m speaking in Columbus, Indiana, later in September, so it’s on my mind. Every time I go, I make a point to visit the great First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen, which helped turn Columbus into an architectural destination. The stillness of the interior and the way natural light works in the space are just perfect. I’ve always wanted to design a house of worship. I hope I get the chance.

ID: What do you do during the commute to Yale, and how do you travel?

DB: The typical things commuters do: read, catch up on emails, prepare for the day’s meetings, etc. I primarily travel by train so I try to use that time. Of course I also look out the window. The New Haven line cuts through so many facets of the contemporary built environment—urban, suburban, rural. There are pockets of great wealth and struggling urban centers. Suburban strip malls, abandoned factories, beautiful wetlands. It’s a fascinating journey in a relatively short distance.

ID: What’s your interiors pet peeve?

DB: In general, I dislike over-scaled furniture. You shouldn’t try and fill a large space with big pieces of furniture. If you’re lucky enough to have a large space, let it breathe and highlight the architecture.

ID: Where did you grow up, and how did it influence your work?

DB: I grew up in Douglaston, Queens, which has detached single family houses in many styles. It was a kind of idyllic mid-century childhood. I started sketching houses as a child, so the interest in architecture was there from the beginning. I was also very interested in the people behind those front doors. For me, architecture was always entwined with everyday life, so I think about that when I’m designing a house, a school, an office building, whatever.

ID: What’s the best thing about your job?

DB: We do a lot of different kinds of work in our office—masterplans, ground-up construction, houses, interiors—for institutional clients, companies, and individuals. So that involves a lot of learning and listening. We have a strong set of guiding values in our office, but we start every project with a fresh perspective. Honestly, I can’t think of a more stimulating profession.

ID: Do you consider yourself a minimalist?

DB: I don’t worry about labels anymore. When I was starting out, the modernist/postmodernist style war was raging. That debate never appealed to me. I always tried to cut my own path toward something more true, more elemental. Style was never the driving force for me.

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