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Deborah Berke

The New York City-based architect and educator on developing a taste for minimalism in the suburbs

Courtesy of Deborah Berke

My childhood bedroom, in Queens, New York—at least until we moved out of that house when I was about eight—had a plasterwork circle on the ceiling of nymphs jumping rope over garlands of roses. It was spectacular. There's a picture of me when I was three years old standing in front of the decorative fireplace, where there's a sculpture of a nude woman on each side of the mantel. And you can see the insane level of decoration. The whole house was like that. Every ceiling was decorated, the door frames were decorated, everything was white plaster with decorative motifs.

Whether it was originally that way, I don't know. My parents bought the house in the 1950s from a plaster craftsman and we lived there until the '60s when they moved to Douglaston, which is a neighborhood further east in Queens. My mother still lives in the house we moved to. She's been there for more than 50 years now. It's a very simple, modest house in a really beautiful neighborhood. The house almost looks like a child's drawing: It's got a pediment over the front door and windows on either side.

One of the interesting things about this part of Queens was that all the houses are different. Most of the houses were built in the 1920s, which, to my mind, is one of the great periods of American residential architecture. So, there are Tudors and center-hall Colonials and a couple of what I'd call "Spanish Modern," stucco, flat-roofed houses. The neighborhood is now a historic district.

I decided to become an architect by walking around this neighborhood at night with a friend who was a student at Cooper Union. On summer nights, we'd look at the houses—which would be lit up—and we'd try to figure out how they were laid out inside. But it was not so much just the house as the place: the neighborhood, the streets. The whole place felt like my house. All the neighborhood kids hung out together in different parts of the neighborhood. There was a dock to go swimming, and a ball field, and you could walk along the waterfront in Little Neck Bay. It was a totally idyllic childhood. My husband also grew up there. So there's the impact of the house—the plaster craftsman's house—and then there's the impact of Douglaston as a neighborhood that was all my house.

The church my family attended was an interesting contrast to our home. We belonged to a Congregationalist church in Flushing, which, unfortunately, burned down. It was a beautiful building. I'm not a religious person and I don't observe anything, but I was raised a Congregationalist—the religion of my mother's ancestors. And that church—unlike the house I grew up in—was incredibly severe and stark. There were no stained-glass windows, just an absolutely plain altar with a single cross. Basta. The ceiling was painted a pale blue and everything else was white. The floor was dark wood. The pews were white with dark wood at the ends. It was a really beautiful building.

I think my aesthetic is more akin to my memories of that church and, if anything, is a reaction to the ornate plasterwork of this house. Although it made a real impact on me, I think I reacted to it rather than ever imitated it.

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and my sophomore year I got an apartment with my friend Bruce Bierman, who's now an interior designer. We were in the English basement apartment of a townhouse quite close to school.

I'll never forget it: The apartment had 15-foot ceilings and the windows started up the walls seven feet. So we knew every single person at RISD from the knees down. The apartment was dreary but we fixed it up. We painted the all the walls white and we thought we were being so cool. Bruce was learning how to weave and there's a picture of me in that apartment surrounded by skeins of yarn in this ridiculous photograph. It was really a great apartment and we felt extremely grown up.

In terms of fashioning an aesthetic identity, I think the white paint in that apartment was the beginning. Making all the surfaces fairly mute—I think I've grown past it now—but it was the beginning.

After RISD, I lived in London for a while—in a loft on the Thames on Butler's Wharf—when I was at the Architectural Association. Not very many Londoners were doing that then. It's all been turned into fancy housing. And it also had a very minimal interior: brick walls that we painted shiny white. We had huge sisal carpets and very modern furniture. So that was a continuation of that same aesthetic.

From there, I moved back to New York and lived in Soho on Spring Street in a little brick house that was built in the early 1800s and had an apartment right under the roof. It was wonderful. Not a single surface was parallel, perpendicular, even, flat, straight—nothing. It was really Old New York. Having seen Hamilton now multiple times, it could've been a set for the show. I kept my books in vertical stacks on the floor and slept on a futon. I lived like a monk in this very oddly proportioned and non-square space. The "historic fabric" of the building was not an ornate or highly decorated one. It made me want to live really minimally. John Gotti would walk around and around and around my block because the FBI had bugged his clubhouse on Mulberry Street. So he'd have all his conversations outside, in a velour track suit. The neighborhood was so different.

Now I live on Manhattan's Upper East Side, but not really. I live in Yorkville, which is too far east to really be the Upper East Side, right along the East River. I'm back at street level, in a maisonette. Once again, I'm looking at people's ankles.

I want rooms to be perfect containers for life.

The view for me doesn't have to be about The View—a grand sense of seeing the Park or seeing far into the distance—but just connecting to the outside. Most days, I check the river for boats going by and I see how the light is reflecting on the surface of the water. It means a lot to me. That is my absolute routine, paying a morning homage to the East River. We always make a point of going out on the equinoxes and just watching the sun.

Though I'd lived minimally my whole life, I have a husband and a grown daughter, and they do have stuff. We make dinner and have dinner parties and entertain a lot. But what's stayed the same is that the spaces are really spare. We pay attention to the art that's on the wall and the books that are in the room, something I picked up from my parents. How we're in a room alone and how we're in a room with friends and family both matter. In a way, I want the rooms to be perfect containers for life.

There's a reason Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a bestseller. I think we're changing our relationship with all our stuff. It's starting to feel really burdensome and oppressive. Some of that is about getting rid of stuff; some of it is about wiser, more beautiful ways of storing stuff. I think it's about establishing emotional or intellectual connections with what you have. And whatever doesn't meet that criteria is what we don't want to have anymore. Kondo's timing was brilliant because the impact is visual, environmental, ecological—and I think this is going to unfold for a while. That's what I see in the future.

For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Deborah Berke on Instagram and her firm, Deborah Berke Partners, (also!) on Instagram.

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