Stephen Apking beneath Jean Dubuffet’s “Group of Four Trees” sculpture at 28 Liberty (formerly One Chase Manhattan Plaza). Photo © Lucas Blair | SOM

Out of Office: Stephen Apking

From books to buildings, the places an interior designer finds inspiration.

Stephen Apking is attuned to history, yet focused on the future. The leader of SOM’s interior design studio has worked with institutions that carry a deep legacy and international significance, such as the United Nations, NATO, and the IMF. With an approach that centers on the human experience, he believes in the power of design to advance an organization’s culture and values. To continue Out of Office, our series on the people behind SOM’s global practice, ​we asked Stephen about what inspires him, within and outside of the workplace.

What made you want to become an architect?
Architecture chose me. Everything I was good at in high school — math, art, and history — directed me to architecture.

If you hadn’t been an architect what would you be doing?
There were no other options other than architecture.

What piece of advice do you have for students?
Read history and understand the role architecture plays in culture over time.

Our work takes so long from conception to completion that it’s necessary to have tenacity to keep the idea of the project clear.

What three books do you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
Three aren’t enough — I’ll give you five off the top of my head…

Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. Palladio and Le Corbusier are illuminated through comparison.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The book that re-introduced us to Edwin Lutyens.

Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, The Decoration of Houses. The guide to symmetry, proportion, balance, and material application.

Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. A Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a builder with extreme aspirations.

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. A convincing musing on what we do during the business day.

What’s your favorite app?
Duolingo. I’m working on improving my French.

What experiences are on your bucket list?
• Attending the ballet at the Palais Garnier
• Dinner at l’Arpège
• Competing on American Ninja Warrior

You’re showing a visitor your city. Where’s the first place you take them?
One Chase Manhattan Plaza — the Dubuffet sculpture. After walking through the streets downtown filled with heavy 19th and early 20th-century buildings, it provides a contrast that remains brilliant and optimistic.

Photo © Lucas Blair | SOM

What keeps you up at night?
Nothing — I am a sound sleeper.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
Fewer barriers to communication and an ever-more open society.

What is most important in design right now?
Understanding and enhancing quality of life.

Who is someone you admire?
Christine Lagarde. We worked together on the IMF Headquarters. She is always focused and clear, even though I know she has many other commitments.

What is the most awe inspiring space you’ve been in?
Sainte-Chapelle — the French Rayonnant Gothic chapel on the Île de la Cité. The room is weightless. Over 50 feet of leaded glass hangs miraculously suspended.

What is the most important quality for an architect to have?
Persistence. Our work takes so long from conception to completion that it’s necessary to have tenacity to keep the idea of the project clear.

Define good leadership…
What I try to do every day: mentoring others.

Define good design…
What we do at SOM: audacious performance for our time. Beauty that comes from a synthesis of cultural understanding, operational excellence, and efficiency.

Learn more about Stephen’s work here, and read the first of our Out of Office profiles on the people at SOM: