Deborah Berke : Interview

By Michael Clouse | Dec 19, 2013

Deborah Berke Partners is an architecture and interior design firm started by RISD alumna Deborah Berke in 1982. The New York based firm’s projects include everything from custom furniture to master planning: residences, hotels, public buildings, facilities for the arts, and academia. Regardless of the program, the firm pursues a “knowing simplicity” in the design for how clients will inhabit the space.

The goal for the work is:

“To create buildings and spaces that are poised between background and foreground, where the presence of architecture is in a constant balance with the forces of life. While the firm’s design work is often described as having a refined, elegant aesthetic, it might be more aptly described as being both bold and subtle at the same time.”

Last year, Berke received the inaugural Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize from the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

In addition to working at the firm, Berke teaches as a Professor at the Yale School of Architecture and has taught there for 27 years.

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Deborah Berke. Winnie Au,

M: What have you been doing since you graduated from RISD? Did you work for a firm after graduating and what was your transition to starting your own firm?

D: I’ve been out of RISD for a long time and since then, in a nutshell, I’ve been teaching and practicing. I briefly worked at Kohn Pederson Fox while in graduate school, but when I graduated, it wasn’t so much a transition as an inevitability that I would have my own practice. I taught to support the practice, first at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York and then at the University of Maryland. I then moved on to Yale where I have been teaching for 27 years.

M: Please tell me about your design aesthetic or intention. Is there a common thread that links your work together or guides your designs?

D: I am drawn to the everyday landscape and my inspiration comes from finding that which is most exquisite in it. This has been a constant truth for me.

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21c Museum Hotel, Bentonville. Timothy Hursley

M: What projects are you currently working on?

D: I am currently working on a number of exciting projects. We are designing the residential interiors of 432 Park Avenue, which will be the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere when completed; transforming H.H. Richardson’s landmarked Richardson Olmsted Complex into a boutique hotel and conference center in Buffalo, New York; and following our award-winning 21c Museum Hotel, Louisville with three new 21c Museum Hotels. Two other projects we’re working on are a renovation and addition to I.M. Pei’s Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia and a renovation and addition to PS122, a historic New York City Public School used as the 122 Community Arts Center.  In addition to these large-scale projects, we are also designing several private residences in New York and across the country.

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21c Museum Hotel, Bentonville. Timothy Hursley

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21c Museum Hotel, Cincinnati. Chris Cooper,

M: How is your office culture similar or different to working in studio as a student?

D: Since I teach I am still engaged in studio culture regularly, but my office is not explicitly run like a studio in school; it is too big. However, we do maintain the method of approaching each project as an opportunity to develop our design vision within the conditions specific to the project. This attitude of intelligent discovery is reminiscent of an academic studio.

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Deborah Berke, in the Deborah Berke Partners office. Chad Broussard

M: How do the skills and habits you learned from RISD influence how you work today?

D: The best thing about RISD for an architecture student in my day was being in the company of artists; I loved the creative exchange. This still influences how I think and work today.

M: What advice do you have for current or perspective students?

D: Keep your eyes always open and remember what you see.

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Deborah Berke, teaching at the Berkeley-Rupp Exhibition, UC Berkeley. Kirk Wuest

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Laszlo Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory of Music at Bard College. Chris Cooper

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432 Park Avenue. Copyright dbox for CIM Group & Macklowe Properties

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West 12th Street Loft. Chris Cooper

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Richardson Olmsted Complex. Deborah Berke Partners

See more work from Deborah Berke Partners.

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