Lucien Rees Roberts talks poetically about color, how it behaves in sunlight and shadow, or on the terrace in Croatia, overlooking the Mediterranean, where he paints every August. Steven Harris is more likely to burst out in conversation about cars-particularly Porsches, which he races-and how he imagines every client in terms of the vehicle they might drive.
With personalities as different as they come-one expressed in precise Oxbridge, the other in a barely concealed Florida twang-these two architects teamed up, professionally and personally, more than 20 years ago. Since that time, they have honed a distinct approach to interior architecture that defies categorization while inviting fervent admiration.
Harris and Rees Roberts both came to architecture obliquely, which may explain their aesthetic compatibility. Harris grew up in Florida and studied philosophy in college before heading north to the Rhode Island School of Design and Princeton University, where he earned a master's degree in architecture. Before opening his own firm, Harris did stints in the offices of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and Michael Graves & Associates. Teaching posts at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, where he has been on the architecture faculty for 20 years, prove Harris is equally committed to academia and practice. His philosophy remains rooted in the pleasures of the quotidian; he has even written a book, co-authored with Interior Design Hall of Fame member and friend Deborah Berke, titled Architecture of the Everyday.
In England, both of Rees Roberts's parents are painters but they suggested-insisted, actually-their son pursue another career. So he took a degree in architecture at Cambridge, moved to the U.S. in the early 1980's, and worked on bank and corporate interiors, always thinking of his day job as the means to support his penchant for painting. He developed a reputation as a nontraditional portrait painter. When, nearly 10 years ago, my own children were his subjects, he portrayed them in a Hockneyesque collage incorporating personal interiors, New England landscapes, and a Labrador retriever on seven overlapping canvasses.
Despite their disparate experiences, the two architects share a sensibility that is practical but evocative. Although both are thorough modernists, they reject a puritanical, hair-shirt approach to designing contemporary structures and interiors. "What interests me is not to build up space in terms of style or character," says Harris, drinking a Coca-Cola, Southern-style, at breakfast. "But to build up slowly with as few preconceptions as possible according to how someone actually lives because that is how to give real character."
It's an approach that has worked well from their very first project together, in 1988, designing a Florida guesthouse where they installed a Juan Gris-inspired, violin-shape swimming pool. Subsequently, they have been equally successful reconciling a 1920's Hollywood look with mid-20th-century modern furnishings in writer John Berendt's town house on New York's Upper West Side; installing a Vsoske rug in a modern addition to a 1797 New Jersey farmhouse; or adding edge to an office for actor John Leguizamo in downtown Manhattan.
In 2007, the couple split their practice into Steven Harris Architects and Rees Roberts + Partners, in order to create partnerships in the latter firm devoted to interior and landscape design. Still, Rees Roberts plays the role of silent partner even on projects for which he is not the official interior designer. "I get involved to make sure the layouts work for what we need to happen," he says. "I especially want to make sure the lighting is right so people look and feel good with the objects around them." While most of their work is residential, the scope of recent projects has expanded to include a condominium on New York's landmarked Bond Street; a 3,000-acre eco-resort in India; and a small hotel converted from a 16th-century palace in Croatia. "Most architects follow the paradigm that you start small and get bigger and bigger until you are designing airports," Harris continues. "We hope to work with more and more interesting people on more and more interesting sites."