10 Questions With… Sawyer Berson
New York-based Sawyer Berson, founded in 1999, has caught the world’s attention with sophisticated and inspiring architecture and interiors. From celebrity and luxury residences in New York and the Hamptons to storefronts for heavyweight clients like Vera Wang and Robert Marc, the big-thinking Brian Sawyer and John Berson blend a strong sense of tradition with a decided curiosity for modern principles and the needs of tomorrow.
Interior Design: What would you say are your individual strengths?
Brian Sawyer: I do a great deal of the design work, throwing out ideas and inspiration from my travels and the books that I read. A lot gets brought to the table and as a firm we translate this inspiration into reality. John and I have completely different backgrounds, and our fundamentally different approaches make for the best part of the partnership. I grew up working in gardens and greenhouses, in the beautiful suburbs of Indianapolis.
John Berson: Meanwhile, I’m Manhattan born-and-bred. I’m manic about execution, and fascinated by technology. I like to up the ante on our projects through the technology available; I think it gives us the confidence to take on a greater spectrum of work. It helps that we have a really strong team, the members of which know a lot about their respective disciplines.
ID: What is the greatest part of doing this work as a partnership?
BS: We get to switch hats. John and I have known each other for close to 25 years, and have developed our own unique way of communicating. We’re not afraid to be critical and challenging of one another, because we understand it’s how to maintain a high level of oversight. One can be the voice of reason; the other can be the ambitious nut case and coming up with wild ideas that drive the project further.
JB: The partnership allows our projects to evolve with a great deal of depth. One will push and challenge while the other adds refinement. As our scope and scale have increased, so too have the levels of detail developed. It’s also allowed for a fair degree of consistency.
ID: What kind of client dynamic do you like to strike?
JB: We love it if a client comes in with a vision for what they want. It’s something that pushes us on all fronts. If we can take that vision and amplify it, we’re all better for it.
BS: We love to have a lively and dynamic dialogue with our clients, who tend to be very well versed in design. We absorb and sometimes challenge what they bring to the table, and allow our conversations to generate new thoughts and ideas. We don’t have all the answers going in to a project, and we like our client to come to the table with a particular point of view. The best projects are those from which we come away having learned a great deal and having taught a great deal. It’s never about the size or budget.
ID: You’re a very busy and sought after firm, with your hands in many projects. What are some of the more inspiring projects you’ve taken on recently?
BS: We’ve had the opportunity to do the renovation of the late Brooke Astor’s apartment, and it’s an incredible opportunity to work with a high level of refinement, just incredible. Originally the family wanted an 18th-century French design, and we set out to execute this. . .But we reached an impasse in the planning of the project. I had been looking closely at the library designed by Albert Hadley—which was an instant classic and intriguing by nature. The restoration of that room inspired us to shift gears and bring that influence into the overall design of the residence, a chic duplex overlooking Park Avenue done in the French Modern style.
Then of course there are the new stores for Vera Wang. These have been so fun for us, because they are lively and intense collaborations with a brilliant designer. As with her clothing, ideas are mocked up, tried on, taken off and recut until we get it right. Like set design, our work with Vera is produced straight from the gut.
JS: Our work on those stores is very compressed. We get the big idea, are given a few pokes and pushes, and then it’s straight on to execution. It’s very refreshing.
ID: What would you say are the requests of today’s retail clients, and how does your firm likes to work with them?
BS: Often they want art galleries to display what they’re making—because much of what is made really is art.
JB: With Vera Wang, visitors aren’t just walking into a lifestyle store, they are experiencing the art of her brand.
BS: She is so deliberate and impactful in her design, the setting we create needs to make a sincere overture to the fashions on display.
ID: What are the best possibilities of the landscape portion of the business?
BS: We have this incredible opportunity to create settings for our buildings, as well as buildings for our settings. Few people understand how exciting that is. We both grew up in Robert A. M. Stern’s office, where everything was under the same roof. What we’re doing at our firm is having a free dialogue, where I can take what I love and know about gardens and seeing them as a part of the bigger picture. Every now and then, a client allows you to do something horticulturally interesting that requires some maintenance and cultivation, which takes it all to a new level.
JB: This is especially true for a garden in Southampton we created, the plan of which was as sophisticated as the house itself.
ID: How would you like to continue to grow the practice, big picture-wise?
BS: We want to take the firm toward larger scale projects, not necessarily just residential. Both John and I are schooled in the design of cities; in the juxtaposition of urban and suburban ideas—the notions of living densely and energetically in the city and relaxed and open in the “country.” We would like to do public work in New York City—something that been missing from our practice and is a bit of a hole in our hearts.
ID: What would be a really perfect city project for you?
JB: I grew up when urban renewal was in full swing, in the 60s and 70s, and a great deal of New York was lost, no matter how noble the goals were. We’d love to jump in and do a project, whether it’s new or a restoration, that honors the city and teases out some sense of its history. We’d love to honor sense of “neighborhood” and articulate a sensibility particular to a certain place.
ID: What do you look for in those who you invite to join your staff?
BS: We look for individuals who are extremely curious and self-motivated. They want to know about all aspects of design, no matter what their previous exposure has been.
JB: They can take a problem and challenge and run with it, then come back with us with five solutions. We challenge our staff members with different roles, exposing them to all sides of the profession.
BS: Just as we challenge each other, we are similarly open to being challenged by our staff, if they’re up to it. We believe there’s no end to how far one can push an idea in design, and the people with whom we work hold true to that. I’m thinking of one young man who came to us, who had been a model maker. He was working in a model shop and knocked out a beautiful model for us. We had a last minute project and we said to him, “How fast could you do this?” He stayed all night, did a perfect job, and we had to keep him on. He has since flourished here at Sawyer Berson.
ID: What do you think are the great opportunities for people entering the industry today?
BS: There’s a good deal of good design happening in various styles and scales. I suggest that someone starting out in the profession should go to a firm and stay there—work through a project and see it in all its dimensions. Projects are generally a two- to four-year cycle. They’re different, and you have to stick with them. A lot of people want that quick turnaround, but having that patience to work long and hard at something will absolutely pay off.
JB: Learning enough humility to work through a problem—sometimes two and three times—is invaluable knowledge. I’ll also say that we have to learn to be global architects. Technology brings an awareness of the practice at a world-wide level; anyone entering the field today is expected to be attuned to these shifts on an international scale. Through the process of professional education we can cultivate our aspirations.