Design Notes from the Dean: Deborah Berke

Plus, her 8 commandments of design

Architect Deborah Berke is having her year in the limelight. She topped headlines when she became the first female dean at the Yale School of Architecture in July. She also released her eighth book, House Rules: An Architect’s Guide to Modern Life, and around the same time, her sixth hotel for the 21C chain opened in Oklahoma City. For the latter projects, she transforms neglected old buildings into chic, modern destinations.

More than anything, though, Berke says she loves designing homes. Since starting her firm four decades ago, she’s designed more than 100, beginning with 17 cottages in Seaside, Florida. After spending so much time and thought on residential architecture, she realized that all would-be homeowners face the same questions. So she organized her new book around these common themes, illustrating each with examples from her newest works.

Jason Schmidt

What are these rules? “They’re more like guidelines,” says Berke. “These are things I found myself telling people who ask for my advice—even those who didn’t hire me—the kinds of questions I would answer at cocktail parties.”

What was your home like growing up?

My mom still lives in the house that I grew up in, a modest white stucco house from the 1920s with a pitched roof and a simple floor plan. I grew up in a middle-class Queens neighborhood with tree-lined streets and tennis courts, just a couple of blocks from John McEnroe. I went to public schools for elementary and junior high schools, but it was a neighborhood which had sailboats and played tennis. So it was kind of the best of both worlds.

My mom was a fashion designer, and for most of my life she was a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. It was not a minimalist house, more of a creative house; often the dining table would have yards of fabric on it, and my mother would be designing a dress or cutting out apattern. There were creative activities going on all over the place.

Berke is a long-time champion of simple materials, such as the wood classing in the dining room above. [Photo: Jane Beiles]

Yet your architecture and home interiors are known for being minimal.

I am definitely anti-clutter. I have a daughter—of course now she’s older but when she was 3, she lined up all of her shoes in a color-coded order, and I thought, “Holy cow, what have I done?”

Did you read Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up?

I got about halfway through; it’s not for me. I don’t part with things in the way she recommends. I have some really beautiful articles of clothing from decades ago that I may not wear for years. But they’re beautiful, well made, and it seems wasteful to me—and my Yankee sensibility—to get rid of them. Lo and behold, I might wear something that I wore 20 years ago! I don’t acquire that much, and I keep my things in a very orderly way so they don’t overwhelm. Maybe what she and I agree on is order.

Tell me about the inspiration behind your new book.

I’ve been designing houses my entire career, and although my firm does many other things, I love designing houses. When one thinks about putting a book about houses together you either line them up in chronological order and hope somebody sees the progression or do it geographically. But none of the typical ways of organizing felt right. In all of the houses we’ve done, a couple of rules—not strict rules but sort of guidelines—would recur again and again. They are even things I say to people who ask my advice, so I decided it makes more sense to organize around ideas.

Berke created visual interest in the Sagaponack, New York, beach house above, by juxtaposing horizontal and vertical yellow Alaskan cedar. [Photo: Chris Cooper]

You advise pushing boundaries when considering the site for a new home. How do we do that?

It’s the first rule in the book: Property lines do not define a site. Obviously property lines come with many rules, including zoning and setback and height limitations and all of that, but if you think about what really allows a house to be unique and connected to its piece of property, that is to take advantage of what’s beyond the site. In Colorado the question would be “Where’s the distant view of the mountains that will never be compromised?” Or “Where’s the huge, towering pine trees that line the street?” They’re not mine, but boy do I like waking up and hearing the needles rustle and smelling it. You can take advantage of acknowledging what’s around you. Interestingly, not all of those things are visual; it could be the sound of the ocean or the smell of the forest. When you site your home, it’s not only what you see.

In your book, you talk a lot about the qualities of materials. Where do you see clients overspend?

I think clients often overspend on wood. They feel the need for a walnut or mahogany. The truth is that less fancy woods like pine or oak are also beautiful. I think there’s the perception that you need the fanciest kind of material, and part of my argument is you don’t, but what you do need is to carefully detail and think through how the material is being used and put together.

A Berke-renovated home in Rye, New York, is perched among the treetops. [Photo: Jason Schmidt]

You say that homes should look more “of a place.” Can you explain what you mean?

There’s no easy answer, and it’s a layering of many characteristics. One, of course, is the climate of that place and orientation of that particular piece of property. The other is the topography—how to settle the house into the slope and contour of the land or work. You also want a material presence that’s one with the place. So the kind of stone, the nature of the roof, all are about a place, its cultural history, its climactic history, its construction traditions.

Tell me about how your early work in Seaside is connected to your work today.

What was great was the houses in Seaside were small and fairly simple. They were weekend houses and vacation houses. So there was less discussion about “Where does homework get done?” and a lot more about “What does a house feel like when the goal is to have three generations having dinner together after they’ve spent all day together?”

Where do you see architecture going next?

I think the next generation of architects will not be as interested in supersized houses, both in what they design and in what their friends and peers and colleagues who aren’t architects want. I see a broader interest in the environment, but I mean it in the way where all the valid environmental concerns are woven in from the get-go, rather than some stuff you apply afterwards.

You write that you knew you wanted to be an architect as a 14-year-old and would speculate how people lived in their homes in your neighborhood. What drove you to that?

Well, I guess a combination of things, a fascination with life and the ways in which it is lived out. I think I mention my friend with whom I did those walks he was already at architecture school at Cooper Union, so talking about houses was a way for us to share ideas. As I said I came from a creative household but he had already started shaping his own life to become an architect – this was the area in which we could share ideas and test out ideas were the houses in the neighborhood. 

Who are your influences?

Saarinen is one of my biggest influences because he had the opportunity to listen to many clients, explore the needs of varied programs, and learn from different cities. “I think good architects really care about our clients and want to make great spaces that serve them well and create places that enhance all our lives.  Saarinen had the opportunity to listen to many different types of clients, explore the needs of varied programs, and learn from different cities. This undoubtedly enhanced his work and is something we strive to do as well.”

Where do you buy your furniture?

I’m so all over the map on that. I guess I buy a lot on because it allows me to look at the most options. Although I do like going to regional auction houses, where you often see stuff from local families coming on the block and you can find great stuff that way.

Organizing is a hot topic. Because organization is something that speaks to you and your work, is this a conflict with clients?

Everybody’s feelings about their possessions are different. Often my clients are collectors, and I want to encourage that because it comes out of who they are. It’s more a question of what’s the way to either store or share this stuff that will give you pleasure but not overwhelm your life. Rule number 6 in the book is to “account for all things, display a few.” There is a photo [on page 150] of a room with an orange chair, and cupboards line the wall. The homeowners collect very valuable ceramics, and the way the cabinets are set up is that when they want the collection to be displayed, the doors stay in the  open position, and when they want the collection inaccessible to their grandchildren, they close the doors, and the room looks good both ways. They like that and I like that. You don’t have to reveal everything you have.

Where do you like to get your art?

That, in truth, is pretty random. Over the 
years, many of my clients have been artists, so I have art from those exchanges. Here in my office, we have art exhibitions, so I’ve gotten to see artists I wouldn’t have otherwise known. The 21C hotel curator has introduced me to the work of a lot of artists I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. So that, of course, has been a fantastic collaboration.

What new 21C Hotels are you designing?

Oklahoma City just opened. We have Nashville under construction, Kansas City soon to start and Indianapolis is in design. So there are more on the way!


 1. Property lines do not define a site.

2. Any material can seduce.

3. Repetition elevates the ordinary.

4. Circulation does more than connect.

5 Rooms can be inside, outside, or both.

6. Account for all things. Display a few.

7. Reckon with tradition.

8. Honor daily life.

Categories: Stylemakers