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
Architect Deborah Berke is not only one of the leading professionals in her field and an instant household name in global design, she was also the subject of the very first architecture story in Wallpaper* – when the magazine launched in 1996. Likewise, we kick off the architectural element of our ‘At home with’ interview series by listening to this famous American share insights, hopes, dreams and inspiration. Berke, who has worked as an architect since 1982, is now the head of her eponymous practice and the dean of the Yale School of Architecture – the first woman to ever hold the position. Her career has always combined teaching and practice, as well as art, luxury and minimalism, with key works including the Marianne Boesky Gallery and the interior at 432 Park Avenue, both in New York City, the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, and a wealth of private homes.
At home with Deborah Berke
Deborah Berke. Photography: Winnie Au
W*: Where are you right now? What can you see?
Deborah Berke: In the living room in my house on the east side of Long Island. From the couch where I often read and sometimes sleep, I see beautiful trees and a tight clear blue sky. When I first envisioned this room while designing the house, I wanted to capture the long horizontal expanse of greenery and the ever-changing border it forms with the sky above. I will continue to cherish that vision.
W*: What’s the last thing you bought?
DB: I recently bought a small painting by Trinidadian-American artist Allana Clarke. I absolutely love it. Allana was recently a fellow at NXTHVN, Titus Kaphar’s artist residency and mentoring program, 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 yourself most productive?
DB: Early in the morning when the sun is bright and the sky is blue. I crave natural light and vistas – they don’t have to be from something pretty or recognizable, they just need to be quite a distance away. I work best near a window on a large open area so I can organize my digital devices and have paper and a variety of tools to draw with.
W*: Favorite place, anywhere in the world? And why?
DB: I have endless favorite places, really everywhere where I can take a long walk and discover something. I love to leave a hotel and find streets, shops, restaurants, parks, buildings and activities that are new to me. When we design hotels, we always try to capitalize on the local culture, to celebrate, elevate and connect with it in a contemporary way.
NXTHVN Gallery. Photography: Chris Cooper
W*: What is the one thing (in your creative field) that you wish you had designed or invented?
DB: A contemplative space, such as a Quaker meeting house or a temple.
W*: In ten years you’ll be…
DB: I remain an architect.
W*: What do you read and what do you think?
DB: I read many things at once on a wide variety of topics. Iwan Baan just gave me the new book he made with Frances Kéré. I admire both of their work immensely. I also read a novel by Shirley Hazzard, the big fire† I recently bought This is where we find ourselves by Njaimeh Njie, who documents the displacement of the black community in Pittsburgh. i’m reading too Women of Capote by Laurence Leamer, which is gossip and fun.
21c Oklahoma City Museum Hotel. Photography: Chris Cooper
W*: What inspires you right now?
DB: Fear for the planet. It is difficult for architects to influence war, 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 recently analyzed the embodied carbon that we have saved in some of our recent projects, and frankly, the numbers are really incredible. Adaptive reuse is therefore a very powerful tool in the fight against climate change.
W*: How do you take out? Are you switching off?
DB: I swim.
W*: Favorite material to work with and why?
DB: I like all materials, especially natural materials. I just want them to be honest, and I love it when they get detailed in an interesting or unexpected way.
Artwork by Allana Clarke
W*: What advice would you give for the next generation?
DB: Stay involved. Keep your eyes on the just future your generation is fighting for and work to build that future.
W*: What has been your biggest failure and what has it taught you?
DB: Architecture is always a bit of a pompous act, so I think there’s always a bit of a fear of failure. I use that as motivation to be as strict as possible.
Long Island house. Photography: Jason Schmidt
W*: Who is your dream employee?
DB: We love working with artists, so working with Titus Kaphar on NXTHVN was a dream project. We hope to work together again. And I’m looking forward to working with other artists on projects that we can’t even imagine.
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, at least in this life.