Despite her lofty achievements, architect Deborah Berke remains grounded and, above all, genuine. Humility and a lack of pretension infuse her stylistically varied work. "It's about economy of gesture. I aspire to understatement-it must be my Yankee roots," jokes the New York-born Rhode Island School of Design graduate. "Rather than designs that can be assimilated at once, I try to evoke a sense of mystery, compelling you to take a second look."
The design community has certainly been looking closely, as Berke's lengthy and varied list of professional benchmarks demonstrates. Since founding her namesake practice in 1982, she has been the subject of museum exhibitions and the recipient of industry awards. Her high-profile commissions include a library for the modern-architecture mecca of Hope, Indiana. She's also the chairman of the board of advisers for Columbia University's Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, a trustee of the Design Trust for Public Space, and coeditor of a 1997 manifesto, Architecture of the Everyday.
A champion of subtlety, Berke ironically owes some of her renown to the flamboyant world of fashion. Besides being the vision behind Manhattan's Industria Superstudio and retail schemes for Club Monaco, she enjoys a long-standing collaboration with former Harper's Bazaar creative director Fabien Baron. She handled the New York office of his design and advertising firm, Baron & Baron, in 1993; in 1999, she completed his loft.
Her restrained architectural statements perhaps seem better suited to the realms of fine art and academia, and she's accomplished much in those categories, too: from lofts for artists William Wegman and Roni Horn to Yale University's School of Art and New Theatre. While teaching at Yale and elsewhere, Berke says, she has continued to juggle a mix of residential, commercial, and "creative institutional" projects.
Designing a total of 19 austere commercial and residential buildings for the not-so-austere new-urbanist community of Seaside, Florida, was her early break. "Seaside was an important opportunity to actually build and to establish a voice through building-articulated in a vernacular style," says Berke.
She's now participating in another planned development boasting big-name architects: For the Houses at Sagaponac on Long Island, she's designed a modest cedar-clad, U-shape residence that references the area's beach-modernist traditions. Other residences on the East End of Long Island, an arts facility for Vermont's Marlboro College, and her hospitality debut, a 90-room boutique hotel in Kentucky, are on the boards as well.
Berke often leaves her work a little bit raw and open-ended, allowing the client to bring a project to life-and often accounting for last-minute surprises. Her career trajectory, it seems, is one of them. Asked if she ever envisioned where she'd be in 2002, she responds with appreciation: "I had no idea 20 years ago what I'd be doing today, and it's even better than I imagined. I feel unbelievably fortunate."