When is an architect not an architect?

That’s a question I recently had the chance to pose, somewhat indirectly, to Joe Serrins, a Manhattan-based architect with a compact but active practice just off the High Line in Chelsea.

Relatively young, the studio was established with what he refers to in a mix of irony and chagrin as ‘perfect timing’ - shortly after September 11th, 2001. Much of its work to date has been in and around the mature urban landscape of New York, meaning that by and large, the studio has worked more on modifying existing buildings than building new ones.

Hence my question. Regardless of training – and Serrins is a graduate of the highly-regarded division of architecture at RISD - if professionally you work more on interiors than buildings, doesn’t that make you more of an interior designer than an architect?

The answer is no. You may take the boy out of architecture but (apparently) you can never take the architecture out of the boy.

“We see interior design as architecture,” Serrins explains, as we sip something bubbly from a pair of understated but rather clever Álvaro Siza glasses. “Our approach is about space, not just surface. Where an interior designer might start with the palette, or the furniture selection, we start with the physical space and go from there.”

As I pause to think up a clever reply, he shifts forwards in his chair and continues. “We have an equal respect for all the disciplines. We're just as sensitive to what fork we pick, as we are to the relationship of the wall to the stair to the skin of the building. If you look at our work, you’ll se that what we do is create architectural interiors.”

Actually, if you look at the studio’s work, what you will see is that Serrins and his four colleagues also curate art collections for owners who don’t have the time (or perhaps the eye) to do it themselves and design their own furniture. One strikingly sculptural piece, which reminds me of a more shapely dolos, the massive interlocking concrete ‘jacks’ used to shore up coastlines, functions as both lounger and planter depending on which way up it’s placed. In short, whether you want a building, an interior or just a couple of new paintings for your walls, Serrins and Co. are able to provide a turn-key service so comprehensive that if you ask them, they’ll select your art, your armchair, your cutlery and even your towel.

“It's rare that architectural studios have the skill set to cover this much territory in the design world,” he adds, “but objects, design and architecture are passions of everyone at the office.”

While his work, to date, has mostly been in the US, Serrins is no stranger to the region. Half Syrian - his mother is descended from the Shammas and Fares families – and half-Irish, he’s also worked here. One early commission was for the design of an apartment in Beirut’s Marina Towers.

“I'm third generation, so my ties to the 'homeland' are thin but all of my relatives on my Mum's side are Syrian, her generation was the first not to marry another Syrian,” he says. “My family were really excited by the prospect of me working in Beirut and of course the first thing they asked me was ‘did you go to Syria? Did you touch the ground? You should call so-and-so while you're there’.”

Marina Towers wasn’t his first major commission though. That was the Santa Maria, a duplex apartment in luxury condo in Miami Beach. Essentially working on his own and responsible for making all the choices, Serrins abruptly found himself playing big league.

The client, a businessman who was introduced by way of a mutual connection, had been direct, if not necessarily expansive, about his needs.

“He said ‘I know exactly what I want. I want it to be modern and I want it to look like a cool hotel,” he says of their first (and effectively last) design meeting. “Then he asked me how much I wanted, how long I needed and whether I thought I could do it.”

The final instruction Serrins received from his client was that while the apartment was his and so had to be a place that he liked, normally, it was his wife who did the decorating.

“Then he says ‘you're not going to meet her until the project is over', which is a pretty unnerving thing to say to somebody because you know at the end of the day, you'd better hope that the wife likes it or it's not going to be pretty for anyone.”

With relatively little to go on, Serrins decided to approach the project more or less as if he was designing it for himself. The gambit paid off. A year later, after walking around the finished apartment without saying a word, the chic, sophisticated wife turned to the by now nervous Serrins and with a smile told him she loved it.

Masculine, but in a sophisticated and nuanced way, the apartment is very much of its place and while it could, indeed, pass for that ‘cool hotel’ the client requested, it never forgets that it is a home and so never allows its more boutique elements to overpower.

The colour scheme, an array of light grey-blues, off-whites and gentle beiges reflect the surrounding seascapes. The hand-painted glass staircase, for example, echoes the colours of the Bay of Biscayne. If lighter shades dominate, bursts of colour from the artworks and the occasional brightly coloured chair, as well as the dark rich woods used in the mezzanine level den, the office and master bedroom, provide contrast and balance.

Cerebral without being austere, playful without being immature, the Santa Maria is a space that is visually impressive but totally liveable or as Serrins puts it, “clean but not too cold, really modern but really comfortable.”

The same can be said of the apartment in downtown Beirut. Like its counterpart in Miami, it too sits on the waterfront - here on the edge of the new marina – and commands an uninterrupted view, in this case across the Bay of Beirut to the mountains. This is exploited throughout the apartment, most especially from the expansive terrace and is carefully integrated into the overall design, in effect, turning a large swathe of Lebanon into an element in Serrins’ decorative scheme.

In the main living room, a cityscape on the ceiling (the relief is based on an old map of Paris) finds more abstract reflection on a section of the rear wall, which is inscribed with more fluid shapes. Echoes of Lebanon are evident in the contemporary blown-glass lanterns in one bedroom and the reupholstered vintage mid-Century pieces scattered throughout the apartment, a reminder of the city’s pre-war infatuation with all that was modern. The palette, a restrained bouquet of whites, light pinks and warm browns, is supplemented by occasional expanses of richly textured marble and wallpapers embellished with subtly organic patterns.

“There's something about making a space in which the floor and ceiling are both ‘active’. Here, we took a sculptural approach, so instead of an obvious cove, we did this plaster ‘cloud’ with carved details. But I think all those elements, the wall, ceiling, floor, skin of the building are critical elements that any good interior designer would consider. Or architect.”

Ah, it’s that ‘A’ word again. I can’t resist the urge to return to my first question.

“Our firm is 12 years old this September and we've got commissions for four houses this year, so hopefully at least one of them will get built,” Serrins counters, entirely unperturbed. Ignoring my bait, he adds that one of the projects under discussion is in southern Lebanon. “That’s our next step as a firm, building more, doing things that are a little heavier on the architectural side. That’s an aspect of our ability I’d love people to recognise about us.”

Originally published in Bespoke 

Photo © Joe Serrins