At home with Deborah Berke
Architect Deborah Berke talks to us about art, collaboration, climate change and the future, from the living room of her Long Island home
Not only is architect Deborah Berke one of her field’s leading professionals and an instantly recognised name in worldwide design, she was also the subject of the very first architecture story in Wallpaper* – when the magazine launched in 1996. In similar fashion, we kick off the architectural element of our ‘At home with’ interview series by hearing from this renowned American, who shares with us insights, hopes, dreams and inspiration. Berke, who has worked as an architect since 1982, is now the head of her eponymous practice as well as the dean of the Yale School of Architecture – the first woman to ever hold this position. Her career has always blended teaching and practising, as well as art, luxury and minimalism, with key works including the Marianne Boesky Gallery and the interiors at 432 Park Avenue, both in New York City, the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, and a wealthy of private homes.
At home with Deborah Berke
Deborah Berke. Photography: Winnie Au
W*: Where are you at the moment? What can you see?
Deborah Berke: In the living room in my house on the eastern end of Long Island. From the couch where I often read, and sometimes sleep, I can see beautiful trees and starkly crisp bright blue sky. When I first envisioned this room while designing the house, I wanted to capture the long horizontal expanse of green and the everchanging edge it makes with the sky above. I continue to cherish that view.
W*: What’s the last thing you bought?
DB: I recently bought a small painting by the Trinidadian-American artist Allana Clarke. I absolutely love it. Allana was recently a fellow at NXTHVN, the’ residency and mentor artists ship program founded by Titus Kaphar, for which we designed the building. So that connection makes it even more meaningful to me.
NXTHVN Gallery. Photography: John Dennis
W*: Where and when do you find you are most productive?
DB: Early in the morning when the sun is bright and the sky is blue. I crave natural light and long views – they don’t have to be of anything beautiful or recognisable, they just have to have a significant distance. I work best near a window on a big open surface, so I can arrange my digital devices and have paper and a variety of implements with which to draw.
W*: Favorite place, anywhere in the world? And why?
DB: I have endless favorite places, really anywhere I can take a long walk and discover something. I love leaving a hotel and finding streets, shops, restaurants, parks, buildings and activities that are new to me. When we design hotels, we always try and key into the local culture, to celebrate elevate, and connect to it in a contemporary way.
NXTHVN Gallery. Photography: Chris Cooper
W*: What’s the one thing (in your creative field) you wish you had designed or invented?
DB: A contemplative space, like a Quaker meeting house or a temple.
W*: Ten years from now you’ll be…
DB: I’ll still be an architect.
W*: What are you reading, and what do you think of it?
DB: I read lots of things simultaneously on a broad range of subjects. Iwan Baan just gave me the new book he did with Frances Kéré. I admire both of their work so much. I’m also reading a novel by Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire. I recently bought This is Where We Find Ourselves by Njaimeh Njie, which documents the displacement of the Black community in Pittsburgh. I’m also reading Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer, which is gossipy and fun.
21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City. Photography: Chris Cooper
W*: What’s inspiring you right now?
DB: Fear for the planet. It’s hard for architects to have an impact on war or hunger or other global issues, but we have a big role to play in combating the climate crisis. We do a lot of adaptive reuse projects, and we’ve recently been analysing the embodied carbon we’ve saved in some of our recent projects, and, honestly, the numbers are really incredible. So adaptive reuse is a very powerful tool in fighting climate change.
W*: How do you switch off? Do you switch off?
DB: I swim.
W*: Favorite material to work with and why?
DB: I like all materials, particularly natural materials. I just want them to be honest, and I love when they’re detailed in an interesting or unexpected way.
Art piece by Allana Clarke
W*: What one piece of advice would you give for the next generation?
DB: Stay engaged. Keep your eyes trained on the just future your generation is fighting for and work to build it.
W*: What’s been your biggest failure and what did it teach you?
DB: Architecture is always a bit of a highwire act, so I think there’s always a bit of fear of failure. I use that as motivation to be as rigorous as I can.
Long Island house. Photography: Jason Schmidt
W*: Who is your dream collaborator?
DB: We love working with artists, so working with Titus Kaphar on NXTHVN was a dream project. We hope to collaborate again. And I look forward to working with other artists on projects we can’t even imagine yet.
W*: If you weren’t an architect, what would you have been?
DB: An architect is all I ever wanted to be, so I can’t imagine anything else, in this life at least.