American architect Gil Schafer is known for creating personal and timeless homes that celebrate the lives of their owners. They are spaces intended for making and keeping memories. To that end, Schafer’s brand-new book, A Place to Call Home: Tradition, Style, and Memory in the New American House (Rizzoli, $55) pulls back the curtain on his methods. The book also includes a tour of seven of his projects around the country.
Schafer will be in Houston on Wednesday, November 15, to appear on behalf of the Institute of Classical Architecture + Art at Canopy restaurant to talk about and sign copies of A Place to Call Home. (For tickets, click here.) He recently took time out of a busy travel schedule to answer a few nosy questions.
Tell us a little about your new book.
My first book, The Great American House, looked at the qualities that make a house an architectural success, including the perfect balancing of architecture, landscape and interior decoration. With A Place to Call Home, I wanted to explore how important a sense of place is, not just for the architecture of a house, but for the lives of the people who live there. My hope is that people who buy the book will learn from our design decisions and be able to work some of our process into their own homes. I don’t build beautiful houses just to build beautiful houses – my goal is to create places that celebrate the way people like to live and also create repositories for memories.
What is your favorite part of the book process?
I love telling stories, whether it’s through architecture or through images in a book. Finding the best way to tell the individual stories of the various houses in the book through photos and the drawings we made of them was the most fun for me.
Please describe your creative process.
I’m a workaholic, so architecture is constantly on my mind day and night. I sketch a lot in sketchbooks that I carry with me, on a random napkin or whatever piece of paper is at hand. And then I work collaboratively with the amazing team of architects and designers in my office. We do a lot of research for every project, too, trying to get at the natural and historic essence of a particular place and style, so that whatever we do on a given site feels, as much as possible, inevitable.
How does the new book relate to your own life and work?
As the grandson and great-great-grandson of architects, I grew up with a strong sense of how a well-built and thoughtfully-designed home can bring pleasure to daily life. And as a boy I also had the opportunity to live in a number of different places, including Ohio (where I was born) and the California coast (where I spent some of my early teen years). Most of my childhood was spent on a family farm in rural New Jersey. For a number of those years, my dad lived in Manhattan, which meant I also had exposure to city culture. This mix of places and landscapes as well as different types of architecture and ways of living helped me develop a sense of the power of place early in life.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I hope readers can find inspiration for their own lives and houses, appreciating that a true home is one that provides opportunities for creating memories, even in the smallest moments of life.
Who has inspired you?
As someone who seems to work all the time, I’m always inspired by people who have figured out balance in living and have a sense of how to live beautifully. My friends Bunny Williams, the designer, and her husband John Rosselli, the antiques dealer, are just two worth mentioning, as is my stepmother Robin Bell, also an interior designer. Each of them has great taste and style and also great personal warmth that makes you feel instantly comfortable around them – something I hope every house I design elicits as well.
What influences your work that might surprise us?
Since I’m a traditional architect, people assume I’m only interested in classical design. But in fact, I love modernism, too, and contemporary art. I think you look to be inspired by things that are beautiful and move you – wherever your eye might take you.
How would you characterize your architectural style?
I design houses to be comfortable, gracious, understated, hopefully beautiful and to stand the test of time.
Tell us about your personal aesthetic.
Having grown up in and around traditional houses, my personal aesthetic is grounded in classic historic American architecture and taste. But my eye is constantly evolving. Two years ago, for example, I bought an A-frame-ish house built in the 1990s with no architectural character whatsoever, but located on a beautiful site in coastal Maine. I realized that to bring the house to life, I could not create yet another well-mannered Greek or Colonial Revival. I needed to have a different approach altogether, but one that was still grounded in my own ideas of scale, proportion, comfort and memory. So, without abandoning tradition, I designed a much more contemporary house than what I’m known for. Its story makes up the last chapter of the new book.
What is next for you?
We have some wonderful new projects that we are working on, including the restoration of an elegant turn-of-the-century house in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, a classic Shingle-style house and guest cottage in coastal Maine, family compounds in the Hamptons, Vermont and Block Island, and a new Caribbean Georgian-style house in Jupiter Island, Florida.
Given that you recently moved your office from Soho to the Union Square area in Manhattan, tell us please: Friends are coming to New York and have never been before. What must they do while they’re there?
The Metropolitan Museum (“The Met”) is a must-see: one of the greatest art museums in the world. Don’t miss the American wing, which has wonderful period rooms and extraordinary furniture and paintings. And at the other end of town, downtown, be sure to visit the 9/11 museum and memorial. For places to stay, if you’re in an uptown mood, try the Lowell, which Michael Smith has recently refreshed – it’s cozy and chic and in the heart of the Upper East Side. And if you’re feeling more downtown, the recently opened Beekman is an architectural tour-de-force and not too far from the 9/11 memorial. And be sure for try the restaurant Balthazar, near my old office in Soho. It remains a perennial favorite, never failing to offer that perfect dose of effortless glamour you always find in a classic Parisian bistro.
Lastly, please fill in the blanks:
Classic is the new modern.
You can never have too many books.
I can’t live without regular trips to London and the English countryside.
My guilty pleasure is Diet Coke.
My favorite food-and-drink combination is roast chicken with a cold beer on a Sunday evening.
My role model is the early 20th century residential architect David Adler – someone who had incredible fluency with architectural history and styles and wasn’t afraid to explore and synthesize a wide variety of influences.
My dream collaboration is with Belgian landscape designer Jacques Wirtz.